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William Faulkner, one of Mississippi’s many prolific writers, has been credited with saying: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
No matter the quote’s origin, it is certainly true. After leaving my hometown in Mississippi, I completed my education at the University of Virginia and Columbia Law School, including studying abroad in South Africa. I realized the reverse of Faulkner’s lesson is also true: The world has much to teach us about Mississippi – and the rest of the nation.
The Mississippi House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would create a separate court system and an expanded police force for the city of Jackson.
Jackson, the state’s capital city, has an 83% Black majority, among the highest of any major city in America. The Mississippi House has a white supermajority. The bill’s proposed “Capitol Complex Improvement District” would include all of the city’s majority-white neighborhoods.
Separate, unelected judges and prosecutors in a separate part of Jackson
Republican Rep. Trey Lamar says his House Bill 1020 would address high crime rates in Jackson and the backlog of court cases in Hinds County: « This bill is designed to help make our capital city of Mississippi a safer city. »
But Cliff Johnson, a University of Mississippi law professor who opposes the legislation, told The New York Times, « It feels like the kind of reactionary, prejudiced, provincial, anti-democratic reaction that takes Mississippi back 60 years. »
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The special district’s officials would be appointed by statewide elected officials, all of whom are white. Not only are all of the state’s current elected officials white, due to racially polarized voting, they may be white for the foreseeable future. Mississippi has not elected an African American to statewide office since Reconstruction – despite the fact that the population is nearly 40% Black.
The proposed district would put governmental decision-making on issues involving its majority-white neighborhoods into the hands of white officials. Jackson’s non-white individuals arrested there would also more than likely have white judges preside over their fate. House Bill 1020 would give the state’s chief justice the power to appoint judges for this special district and the attorney general the power to appoint its prosecutors.
The story of Mississippi is one of constant management of white racial dominance, dating to the brutal conditions on Mississippi’s plantations before the Civil War. Mississippi had a Black majority from the time of the Civil War through the Great Migration of the 1930s. Even as the Black population statewide shrank, many cities and counties remained majority Black.
White residents committed to white supremacy have historically used the law and violence to maintain power in spite of their numbers. Violence fell out of favor, however, after the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Manipulation of the law became more important.
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The creation of special districts has flown under the radar as a tool to control resources but could result in racial inequality. Special districts are now the most common form of government in the United States. Since 2017, state and local governments have created almost 800 special districts, bringing the total to an all-time high of nearly 40,000. And their popularity continues to grow.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the principle of one person, one vote does not apply to certain special purpose districts such as water and irrigation districts. Courts have also deferred to states on decisions to shift from a system of election to one of appointment for local government bodies.
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But this proposed Capitol Complex Improvement District is not just making sure the water is running – an issue in Jackson where the state legislature provided very little aid until there was a crisis that received national attention. This special district would have broad law enforcement powers and its own separate courts.
These are the kinds of “normal governmental activities and so disproportionately affect different groups that a popular election” is required under the U.S. Constitution.
The right to a popular election is even more important in Mississippi, where the state elects nearly its entire judiciary. The proposed district is also questionable under the federal Voting Rights Act to the extent it removes the right to elect judges and prosecutors for a discriminatory purpose.
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Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba says House Bill 1020 reminds him of apartheid South Africa.
Nelson Mandela negotiated the transition to free and fair elections for the first time in South Africa’s history with F.W. de Klerk, the last president under apartheid, in 1994. I once met a South African reporter who explained that the alliance worked because “de Klerk gave more than he had to give, and Mandela took less than he could have taken.”
Lawmakers must apply the lesson that African Americans have learned since the nation’s founding: In a racially diverse society, we must create alliances and learn to share power. White residents of Jackson face the challenge of learning to trust and to participate in a democratic system, supporting candidates who further their interests to the extent that they align with the broader public.
Understanding Faulkner’s purported view of Mississippi and how the world has shaped my own view of Mississippi have only made it more clear that power sharing is the way forward – not the creation of separate governments.
Jade A. Craig is an assistant professor of law at Nova Southeastern University and a native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. His research focuses on race and state and local government law. Follow him on Twitter: @profjadecraig
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Proposed Jackson unelected court system would be separate, and unequal
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