Gov. Tate Reeves delivers the State of the State address on Jan. 26, 2021, on the steps of the state Capitol. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Gov. Tate Reeves, the top elected official representing the blackest state in America, said on national television Thursday that systemic racism does not exist within the criminal justice system.

In a Fox News town hall Thursday with several Republican governors, Reeves was asked to respond to President Joe Biden’s comments this week about justice system racism and police reform.

“There is not systemic racism in America,” Reeves responded, garnering applause from the live Fox News audience. “We live in the greatest country in the history of mankind. In Mississippi, I was proud of the fact that we had peaceful protesters but we did not have one event in which there was a riot. The reason for that is in our state that we back the blue, we support the police.”

In some political circles, the term “systemic racism” is often misunderstood (or purposefully portrayed) as meaning that every individual within a system is racist. The opposite is true. The term means the systems, by the way they were originally designed and regardless of the intentions of the individuals involved today, disproportionately harm people of color.

In Mississippi, with its well-documented history of overtly racist policymaking and policing, the effects are especially clear. Many of the justice-related laws that still disproportionately harm Black Mississippians were crafted in the 1890s — the start of the Jim Crow era, when white politicians worked to grab power back from Black leaders following Reconstruction.

Reeves was asked to respond to a clip from Biden’s State of the Union speech on Wednesday.

“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans. Now is our opportunity to make some real progress,” Biden said. “The vast majority, men and women wearing the uniform and a badge, serve our communities and they serve them honorably. I know them, I know they want — I know they want to help meet this moment as well. My fellow Americans, we have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systematic racism in our criminal justice system and enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already.”

In America and in Mississippi, the numbers speak for themselves. Setting aside illustrative data in other sectors of society and government, here is just a sampling of data that shows vast racial disparities within the Mississippi criminal justice system:

• As of April 2021, 64% of incarcerated people in Mississippi are Black, despite only making up 38% of the state’s total population.

• On average, 1,052 of every 100,000 Black Mississippians is currently incarcerated, compared to 346 of every 100,000 white Mississippians being currently incarcerated.

• On average, 383 of every 100,000 Black juveniles were in custody, compared to 83 of every 100,000 white juveniles being in custody in Mississippi, according to 2015 data.

• Black Mississippians made up 71.5% of those serving life-without-parole sentences, according to a 2013 study from The Sentencing Project.

• A 2018 analysis by Mississippi Today found that 61% of the Mississippians who have lost their rights to vote based on felony charges are African American, despite the fact that African Americans represent just 36% of the state’s total voting-age population.

• 16% of voting-aged Black Mississippians had lost their rights to vote because of the felony disenfranchisement laws, according to a 2020 study by The Sentencing Project.

• National studies suggest prosecutors disproportionately strike Black citizens while selecting juries. While there is no comprehensive state-level data, several anecdotes suggest this is a major problem in Mississippi. American Public Media’s “In the Dark” podcast reported in 2018 on the 26-year career of central Mississippi District Attorney Doug Evans. Reporters found that his office struck 50% of prospective Black jurors versus just 11% of whites.

READ MORE: Gov. Reeves said he wanted to promote unity. Then he declared Confederate Memorial Day.


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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.