Mixed fortunes and racial disparity along the Mississippi

Voters along the Mississippi River share their hopes and concerns before the US presidential election.

Residents of Davenport, Iowa, are proud to live in the only part of the US where the Mississippi River flows from east to west.

It’s an area where the economy relies on agriculture and manufacturing.

But factory jobs have become harder to find this year. It’s a trend that farmers like Shawn Wright want the next president to change.

“If we keep the well-paying jobs here instead of letting them go overseas, people working those jobs will be able to shop. It’ll help us sell more. It’ll also help the other retailers in the area and small businesses.”

Like countless others we spoke to on a journey along the banks of the Mississippi River, Wright is worried about what the future holds for him and his children.

“I want to be able to leave a legacy for them. Hopefully they’ll be able to keep doing this someday. That’s what family farming is about.”

According to the latest polls, the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is still too close to call, so voters such as Wright could end up playing a crucial role in this election.

The same is true for minority voters and millennials.

As we were leaving Davenport, we met a young man who had no intention of voting.

His contempt wasn’t limited to Clinton and Trump, but the entire political process, which he felt completely left out of. He moved to the area as a child, but he was saving money to make it back to his birthplace – and the next stop in our journey.

How do African Americans feel about the election?

It’s one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Racial economic disparity in St Louis is among the worst in the country; African Americans are more than three times as likely to be living in poverty as whites.

We met with a group of young community activists who had led protests in nearby Ferguson after Michael Brown was shot dead in 2014.

Although they once shunned the political system like the young man we met in Davenport, they’ve since realised that the best way to bring change is from within.

John Muhammad is hoping to run for elected office again [Karim Haddad/Al Jazeera]
John Muhammad is hoping to run for elected office again [Karim Haddad/Al Jazeera]

At the age of 24, John Muhammad decided to run for a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives. He came second during the Democratic primary, but that hasn’t dimmed his enthusiasm for the political arena, especially since his biggest concerns aren’t being addressed.

Muhammad said black neighbourhoods across the US have been neglected, and that many are comparable to the developing world.

We met in the Jeff Vander Lou neighbourhood. When slavery came to an end, it was one of the only parts of St Louis where African Americans were allowed to buy land. More than 90 percent of residents today are black. Most of them live in poverty.

The situation is similar in other crime-ridden parts of the city and its poorer suburbs. It’s one reason why the St Louis branch of the Urban League civil rights group is the nation’s largest.

One of the organisation’s main objectives is helping the less fortunate achieve self-sustainability.

After the Ferguson protests, the Urban League started a programme called Save Our Sons (SOS). It provides a sense of community for young black men while coaching them on how to succeed in the workforce and be productive members of society.

The SOS director wants his students to be informed and vote in their best interests. For those who aren’t interested, Jamie Dennis says “we need to keep letting them know they’re included in the grand scheme of things, because it’s easy to get alienated when there’s age-old systematic racism that affects issues like how police deal with African-American males”.

Rural voters offer their take on the election

It’s not a problem unique to St Louis. Our next stop was Mississippi which is the nation’s poorest state and where racial tension seems to be most prevalent.

It used to be the cotton capital of the world, and most of the white men we spoke to in the Mississippi Delta openly suggested that conditions were better back then.

On at least three separate occasions, we were told that although the industry was once dependent on slaves, they were provided ample food and shelter.

The men we spoke to were upset because they think the descendants of those slaves receive federal assistance without having to do any work at all.

It was impossible to escape the irony that most of the workers we saw in Washington County’s only remaining cotton processing facility were black.

Although white and black voters we spoke to in Mississippi had similar economic concerns, their political allegiances fell mostly along racial lines.

All the white men we met were planning on voting for Trump. Some were proud and others felt they had no other choice.

Mississippi has voted Republican in every election since 1976, and nobody is expecting that to change this year. It’s the only state that still has a Confederate symbol on its flag.

At our final destination, we saw few signs of any Trump supporters. New Orleans is a very liberal town, unlike the rest of the state of Louisiana, which is expected to go red once again.

A cotton gin in Mississippi [Karim Haddad/Al Jazeera]
A cotton gin in Mississippi [Karim Haddad/Al Jazeera]

The voter registration rate among millennials in the Big Easy is higher than the national average, but getting them all to show up to the polls is the challenge. We came across several young people who had no plans to vote.

There is, however, a lot more enthusiasm on college campuses across the city.

Noa Elliot is a 20-year-old volunteer for Rock the Vote. She says “there are a lot of young voters and young women who are seeing themselves in Hillary Clinton”.

That contrasts with the views of a black cotton worker in Mississippi who told me that they were not ready to have a woman in the White House and that it would be a sign of weakness. He says Trump has what it takes to improve the economy, but said he couldn’t vote for him because of his temperament.

Back in St Louis, Muhammad is convinced that that neither Trump nor Clinton will serve his interests.

“It’s not about being a Democrat or Republican, it’s about really understanding what the black community needs, and neither of those two candidates truly get it.”

Wright isn’t too thrilled about Trump either, but he’s willing to give him a chance.

“He’s a businessman and I’ve seen what he’s done with his businesses. I just think being a businessman he may be able to do something better.”

Young voters key to Louisiana

Source: Al Jazeera