Every once in a while, politicians dispense with the bland rhetoric and tell us what they really feel. That’s what Mississippi state Rep. Gene Alday did over the weekend, using some of the most basic, ridiculously racist stereotypes in referring to African-Americans in Mississippi.
Alday’s offensive comments came in the middle of a lengthy article in the local Jackson newspaper about the Mississippi third-grade literacy gates program that’s about to implemented, which would prevent Mississippi’s third-graders from passing to the fourth grade unless they pass a statewide reading test.
The article in yesterday’s Clarion-Ledger addressed the thinking of many African-Americans and others in the state that it would be unfair to the children to penalize them until the schools were adequately funded. But Alday thinks the current level of funding—the lowest in the nation—is just fine.
“I don’t see any schools hurting,” Alday told the paper. He said his state “has a lot of bad school districts. The people are electing superintendents that don’t know anything about education.”
Alday, former mayor of Walls (population 1,248), kept going: “I come from a town where all the Blacks are getting food stamps and what I call ‘welfare crazy checks.’ They don’t work.”
He recounted that one time he had to go to the emergency room for pain and “I liked to died. I laid in there for hours because they (Blacks) were in there being treated for gunshots.”
Alday’s comments are a reminder that in many minds, when the government endeavors to increase funding in areas like education or healthcare, it is equivalent to a handout for the Black community.
The reporter asked Leslie B. McLemore, a civil rights leader who grew up in Walls, to respond to the town’s elected state representative.
“Obviously I don’t agree with that, but I can’t think of anything I would agree with Gene about. It’s an uphill battle,” said McLemore, past director of Jackson State University’s Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy, adding that Alday’s “broad brush of African Americans won’t work. Through his conservative eyes, he’s seeing the wrong picture.”
It would be easy to just dismiss Alday’s statements as the rants of an old Mississippi racist, but what it does is give us a picture of the mindset that has led to Mississippi’s annual position at the bottom of the ranking of state spending on education. This is true racism—using your bias to deny something to people of color that they deserve. In Mississippi, the state with the lowest per capita income in the U.S., where leaders have never funded the schools at adequate levels, the Black community bears the brunt of the miserly ways. Of Mississippi’s population of 3 million, 37 percent are Black — and nearly half (44 percent) of those Black people live in poverty. Arkansas is the only state with a higher percentage of African-Americans in poverty, at 48 percent.
In 1997, when state lawmakers passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, it was supposed to ensure that the state funded the schools at adequate levels. But the schools have only been fully funded twice — in 2003 and 2007, which happened to be election years. Instead of adding funding, in recent years the state cut public education by more than $930 million—forcing districts to cut 2,000 positions, including reading coaches, interventionists, teaching assistants and about 800 teachers.
Last week, state Rep. Lataisha Jackson, D-Como, introduced an amendment to push back the test and its consequences so the state could better prepare students and educators.
Because the test is still being developed and because no one knows what the cutoff score will be, “I just feel it’s unfair to the students, school districts, parents and stakeholders,” she said. “We have not put in adequate funding to help struggling readers.”