An Old, Racist Tale Plays Out In Mississippi — Again

U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy, a Black man wearing a grey suit
Mike Espy [Image via USDA/Flickr/Creative Commons]
By Dena Robinson, J.D., If/When/How Board President

“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

This is the disturbing praise Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith offered a supporter at a campaign event last week, in the year 2018, knowing that her opponent, Democrat Mike Espy, is Black. How dare she have the audacity to make this statement and then claim she can represent the descendants of those whose bodies hung from trees like strange fruit?

After her remarks were caught on video, Hyde-Smith denied that this statement was about race. (Yeah, right. Given Mississippi’s tortured and brutal history of the lynchings of Black men and women, why would we believe this had anything to do with race?!) Of course, it’s about race. It is always about race. In the 2018 midterm elections, issues of race, racism, and identity permeated electoral contests across the country, and there’s no reason to believe Mississippi is immune.

Indeed, Mississippi’s governor, Phil Bryant, who has been critical of efforts to remove the Confederate symbol from Mississippi’s state flag, came to Hyde-Smith’s defense with what might, at first glance, seem like a bizarre non sequitur: by claiming that Black women were participating in the “genocide of 20 million African American children” by having abortions, wondering “where the outrage is.”

In fact, these are age-old tactics with a modern twist. First, Hyde-Smith’s statements hearken back to a very real history of Black men being lynched at the demand of white women happy to feign victimhood. This same script is playing out here — with a white woman crying “Help!” and blaming a Black man for hurting her in some way, before being “rescued” by a white man, who then blames Black communities for a harm that never happened. For Hyde-Smith to attempt to extricate herself from this historical framework is both ignorant and dangerous — especially in Mississippi, which had its last lynching in 1968. This is recent history, y’all.

Second, Gov. Bryant’s attempt to rescue Hyde-Smith by turning the lens on Black women and children is also a familiar trick. This is an effort to ignore the systems that create the need for Black women to even seek abortions, and to turn unnecessary blame for this perfectly legal, rational, and safe decision back on Black women and Black women’s bodies. Our bodies have been under attack (and control) since this country’s inception. Whether that is through the criminalization of mothers who use substances, the criminalization of those who seek to self-manage their own abortion care, or the criminalization of Black women (and girls) who protect themselves and their families from abusers, Black women often bear the brunt of the vicious ways that white supremacy, propped up by both white men and women, wreaks havoc on the Black body. The most insidious aspect of Bryant’s comment is that it stokes the flames of the very real, valid distrust that communities of color, especially Black communities, have had with the medical system. I am thinking about Henrietta Lacks, the Tuskegee study, and the forced sterilization of Black women. Bryant is presuming that Black folks cannot see right through his murky rhetoric — we know that this is only an attempt to leverage white supremacy and prey on this country’s racialized history.

Unfortunately, the work is on us to counter these toxic messages, as reports indicate that this idea of “abortion as black genocide” is gaining traction within parts of the Black community. In fact, one need look no further than at Alveda King, one of the nieces of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who is the head of Civil Rights for the Unborn and works in an African-American community outreach position for Priests for Life. This misappropriation of the language of the Civil Rights Movement devalues the humanity and autonomy of Black women.

None of this happens in a cultural or historical vacuum, and as reproductive justice advocates, our response must be thoughtful and intersectional. This story is about more than an unfortunate and racist comment. This is about systemic racism, the constant degradation of the bodies of Black women and girls, and it’s about the pervasiveness of white supremacy. What are we, as reproductive justice activists, going to do to fight back and create new (and honest) narratives? We could start by centering the voices and experiences of Black women and other women of color. We could amplify the work that Black organizations are doing around reproductive work. We could understand the nuanced and difficult history around Black women, Black bodies, and health care in this country. What we can’t do is stay silent.

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