Tunica County, Mississippi, was notorious as the poorest county in the poorest state in the country even before 1985, when Jesse Jackson declared that he had found “America’s Ethiopia” there. Life for Tunica’s black majority started out hard and got no easier, as statistics from the 1980s testify. The county recorded America’s eighth highest infant-mortality rate, the fourth highest percentage of births to teenage mothers, the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line, and the lowest median household income. In 1984, 70 percent of residents over the age of twenty-five had no high school diploma. Nearly a quarter of the houses lacked modern plumbing. The filthy tin-and-wood shacks that disgusted Jackson rotted along “Sugar Ditch” Alley, named for the open sewer that ran through it. Such infamy inspired a few federal housing projects, but in 1992 the county was still a symbol of rural poverty. Tunica’s unemployment levels were among the highest in Mississippi, and many of those who had jobs did not make enough money to get off welfare. That year more than half the county relied on food stamps.
“Can you believe this?” one woman asks another, as they shuffle forward, waiting at midnight for a table in a casino restaurant. “Right in the middle of the cotton fields,” she marvels.
No one dreamed that casino gambling would take off the way it has in Tunica, says Ken Murphree, Tunica County’s administrator. But the county that for decades could attract no industry has turned out to be an ideal location for the casino trade. In part this is because Mississippi is eager to accommodate gaming. The state collects only eight percent of its casinos’ revenue–among the lowest tax rates on casino gambling in the country and less than half the rate that neighboring Louisiana assesses. Moreover, Mississippi charges a casino only $5,000 every two years to renew its license, whereas Louisiana charges $100,000 every year. While most other states restrict the number of casinos and their concentration, Mississippi models itself on Nevada, the king of the gambling states, granting an unlimited number of licenses and letting the market alone decide which and how many of the fledgling casinos will survive.
They are allowed plenty of leeway to compete. Mississippi’s casinos, unlike those in many other states, may devote as much floor space as they please to gambling and may install as many gaming tables and slot machines as they want to fill. While some states try to legislate against gamblers’ tendency toward excess by forbidding bets over $5.00, Mississippi, like New Jersey and Nevada, lets its gamblers play for high stakes. Ironically, Tunica’s poverty helped to determine the county’s success as a casino mecca, because it made Tunicans receptive to the notion of legalized gambling. Throughout the nation casinos have mushroomed in areas that have despaired of other sources of income. Tunica fits the pattern. When, in 1990, the state authorized casinos along the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, Tunica was the first county on the river to welcome the industry. “We weren’t smarter than other areas,” Murphree is fond of saying. “We were more desperate.”
LUCKILY for Tunica, its neighbor to the north, DeSoto County, was not so desperate. DeSoto, which had prospered as a suburb of Memphis while Tunica languished in the Delta, spurned casinos, establishing Tunica as the closest gambling venue to Memphis, with its metropolitan area of almost a million people. Memphians’ appetite for gambling has proved voracious. When Tunica’s first casino, a riverboat named Splash, opened in October of 1992, it was immediately swamped with customers willing to pay a $10 admission fee and to wait three hours or more to get into the place for a chance to try their luck. Within five weeks the riverboat cleared $22 million, a huge take even by Las Vegas standards. Splash was a relatively small, locally owned operation, but its success attracted the attention of some of the country’s largest gambling corporations.
By the end of 1993 such established casino operators as Harrah’s, Bally’s, and Sheraton had begun to build gaudy palaces in Tunica. They noticed that the county’s location had another advantage–one that is obvious when looking at a map of the central United States. People living in West Coast and East Coast cities could be throwing dice in Nevada or Atlantic City after a reasonably short drive or a quick plane trip, but for people in the middle of the country big-casino gambling was out of easy reach. Tunica’s boosters and casino owners are changing that. They point out that Interstates 40 and 55 intersect in Memphis, putting Tunica within a day’s drive of Oklahoma and Arkansas to the west, Georgia and Tennessee to the east, and Missouri and Indiana to the north. Tunica hopes to become the Las Vegas of the central United States–or, as Splash billed itself, the “Monte Carlo of the Mid-South.”
The astonishing growth of gaming in Tunica suggests that this vision may not be a pipe dream. Tunica’s first casinos were riverboats, essentially no different from those along the Mississippi River in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and southern Mississippi. Since the big operators have moved in, however, Splash has folded and Lady Luck, Tunica’s second casino, has floated south to Coahoma County.
The new casinos are permanent structures, clustered in Las Vegas-like strips near the northern Tunica border. Whipped into fierce competition by Mississippi’s loose gaming laws, the new establishments are monster casinos, with multiple stories, shops, twenty-four-hour restaurants, and elaborate “themes.” Tunica County already has nearly half the casino floor space of Atlantic City. Sam’s Town, the biggest casino, boasts eight restaurants, five bars, an ice-cream parlor, and the “area’s largest western retail store,” and it will soon have an eighteen-hole golf course, shared with the Hollywood casino. The new casinos have enough money behind them to reach beyond Memphis and tap into the huge Atlanta market. They offer gamblers a $99 round-trip airfare from Atlanta to Memphis and a shuttle bus from there to Tunica. High rollers get free flights all the way to the tiny Twinkletown Airport, just north of the casinos. Such efforts have paid off: the casinos rake in about $60 million a month.
After Nevada and New Jersey, Mississippi makes more money from its casinos than any other state, and Tunica’s casinos are among the most lucrativa in Mississippi. Since 1992 Memphis, Tunica’s main source of gamblers, has become the fifth largest casino market in the United States. Investors have plunked down more than a billion dollars in the county to get a piece of the action. Property values around potential development sites have skyrocketed 9,900 percent. Pwo years ago Tunica had one twelve-room motel; now it has the largest hotel in the state–in fact, the largest hotel “from Atlanta to Dallas and from New Orleans to Opryland,” as local developers like to brac. Once, Tunica’s only music venues were juke joints in back alleys and at country crossroads. Today, on the site where the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson was born in a sharecropper’s cabin, Donna Summer plays in a 1,600-seat casino auditorium.
Tunica’s promoters are pushing for the kind of development that will make the county what they call a “destination.” They dream of theme parks and outlet malls, and point to the sudden rise of the country-music mecca Branson, Missouri, as an example of how a resort can flourish in an unlikely locale if developers provide enough attractions. By far the grandest project in the offing is Diamond Lakes, a proposed resort that includes 4,200 hotel rooms, a forty- to seventy-acre theme park, a 700-slip RV park, two manmade lakes, four theaters, and two eighteen-hole golf courses, for which about $75 million has so far been invested.
In some ways Tunica has hit the jackpot. Observing the astonishing success of the first casinos, the county, which gets four percent of casino revenues, hoped eventually to see an increase in its budget from $2.8 million to $7 million. In fact by 1995 the county budget had shot up tenfold, to $28 million. Tunica’s poor black population has also benefited from the casinos. Since gambling was legalized, the percentage of county residents receiving food stamps has fallen from more than 50 percent to 37 percent, and the county’s collection of child-support payments has jumped from under $40,000 to between $60,000 and $70,000 a month.
Nevertheless, the casinos have not rescued Tunica’s poor. Although with eight casinos the county of 8,300 people now has more jobs than residents, most of those jobs, particularly the better-paying ones, have gone to people from outside the county* And whereas boosters claim that the casinos have dramatically reduced unemployment, in fact the average unemployment rate for October of 1994 through September of 1995 was 14.5 percent–only slightly lower than the average rate of 15.1 percent for 1991, the year before the first casino opened. Last September unemployment was 13.6 percent, about twice the average rate in Mississippi as a whole. Only three of the state’s eighty-two counties now suffer greater unemployment than Tunica. In the face of persistent unemployment, those who are well-off continue to insist that “there is a job for everyone who wants one”; but their emphasis has begun to fall on the second clause, so that an observation that once seemed to express relief and celebration now suggests exasperation and disgust. One woman we talked to expressed this bluntly, complaining, “You could put a factory in some people’s back yard and they still wouldn’t work.”
Derrick Crawford, the county’s director of human services, finds this view unfair. He points out that one kind of employer cannot possibly suit every potential employee, and that for religious reasons alone many of Tunica’s blacks would rather be unemployed than work in a casino. Still, like many others, he ultimately lays the blame on what is most often called the “lack of work ethic”–meaning that iany Tunicans make poor employees because they haven’t been conditioned to take a job seriously. People hint that those who are continually out of work are in that situation because they come po work late, take unauthorized days off, or even quit on a whim. Crawford and others see Tunica’s history of unemployment as responsible for this behavior. “If you’re twenty-six or twenty-seven and never had a job,” Crawford says, “nothing has taught you how to work.”
In 1989 the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, chaired by Bill Clinton as the governor of Arkansas, issued a more sweeping statement about the limitations that cripple the black population in Tunica and other Delta communities: “By any objective economic, educational or social measurement, the . . . people in the Delta region are the least prepared to participate in and contribute to the nation’s effort to succeed in the world economy.” Most Tunicans are simply unable to take advantage of the new opportunities that the casinos have brought to their doorstep.
The disparity between the way most Americans live and the way the majority of black Tunicans live defies belief. With the exception of crack cocaine and, now, the casinos, little of modern America has penetrated Tunica County; far from participating in the American dream, most of Tunica’s black population is excluded from even the mundane aspects of American life.
“This is a different world,” Dorothy Rhea, a waitress at one of the casinos, says, describing the sensation of coming to Tunica from Memphis. To explain what she means, she tells a story of working with a new waitress, a young black woman from Tunica. “She’s holding out a plate of bacon,” Rhea says of the other woman, “and she keeps asking me, ‘Is this toast? I need toast. Is this toast?'” The woman was not being sarcastic, Rhea explains. “She really didn’t know what toast was.”
But the county’s problems are even more complex than its grim statistics and such examples of isolation from America’s mainstream would suggest. “Race,” as one woman told us, “is at the heart of everything here in Tunica.”
NOT everyone is poor in what has sometimes been known as the poorest county in America. Pointing out the big landowners, Tunicans often claim that the county is home to more than thirty millionaires. Perhaps more important, Tunica, unlike most rural counties in the South, has almost no poor whites. In fact, in the county seat, the town of Tunica, which is 74 percent white, the county’s reputation for poverty is difficult to credit. The wide main street is lined with a few basic shops–a hardware store, a drugstore, two banks–and is refreshingly free of links from any fast-food chain. An old-fashioned brick courthouse stands in the middle of town. Some of the houses in the most visible neighborhood are modest, though solid and well tended, but most are substantial, and a few might be called mansions. All sit back from the street on large, leafy lots.
To be poor in Tunica County is to be black. Most blacks live outside the town limits–the county as a whole is 74 percent black and only 26 percent white, the reverse of the town. Many blacks live in North Tunica, better known as the “sub” (short for “subdivision”), an unincorporated area adjacent to the county seat. There is some federally subsidized housing in the sub–small, neat brick ranch houses, trailers, and an apartment complex that looks like a barracks. And there are many houses that might more accurately be called shacks. No white people live in North Tunica, and the town has no desire to annex it.
The physical separation of the races in Tunica is not so surprising in itself. After all, few places exist in America where separation does not occur. What seems unusual to the outsider is that the two groups are so close to each other–just across the street in many cases–and yet so unambiguously apart. Robinsonville, the crossroads hamlet closest to the casinos, demonstrates this pattern in miniature. A quarter-mile stretch of street is serene, lined with gracious houses, their walls of freshly painted wood or ivy-covered brick, skirted by green lawns and shaded under arching trees. Last Fourth of July the driveway alongside one of them was packed with BMWs and Cherokees. A child’s voice piped occasionally from another back yard, and in front of a third house a woman maneuvered her sit-down mower carefully around a tree.
The street just around the corner was lively. Along this quarter-mile stretch stands a featureless single-story cinder-block rectangle divided into tiny apartments, and a handful of shacks, their porches balanced on cinder blocks, the wood of their walls bare and weathered gray, their corrugated-tin roofs rusted. The postage-stamp yards in front of these homes are packed dirt and stones, and on the Fourth vans and old American luxury cars were parked in and around them. Music was blasting, and a couple of the porches were crowded. Cars and pickup trucks rambled down the street, paused while someone leaned in the window for a while, and then turned around and rambled up the street again. The two streets together make up almost the whole of Robinsonville, but they seem to belong to completely different worlds.
The blatant separation of the races in Tunica’s schools shocks an outsider even more than the county’s housing pattern, and neither blacks nor whites seem to object to this separation, which is most shocking of all. With few exceptions, Tunica’s white children attend the private, all-white Tunica Institute of Learning. White churches reportedly raise funds to help the small number of white families who otherwise could not pay the tuition. Tunica’s black children go to the public schools. Last year only one white student attended Rosa Fort, the public high school. Significantly, he was not from Tunica; his family had just moved into the county from California.
Certainly Tunica has changed radically since the 1940s, when the county sheriff accused the folklorist Alan Lomax of being a foreign spy because he violated the county’s racial code. Lomax was detained because he interviewed the blues musician Son House, a black man, without permission from the planter for whom House worked, because he referred to House with the honorific “Mister,” and because the sheriff suspected that Lomax had shaken House’s hand. Today the sheriff of Tunica County is black. But while Tunicans now eschew the virulent racism of the past, the attitude that fueled the old behavior–what scholars generally agree comes down to a fear of miscegenation–has merely been tempered, not eradicated. The principal of Rosa Fort, Willie Dismuke, who is black, is surprisingly offhand, for instance, when he mentions that fear of interracial dating is at the heart of the separation between the schools. A racial code still dictates relations between whites and blacks in Tunica, constricting both groups. As Sister Gus Griffin, of Catholic Social Services, a social-service organization in Tunica, observes, “I think in the social structure of Tunica white people would be ostracized if they sent their kids to Rosa Fort. Whites are in line too. They’re not free.”
Race relations influence Tunica’s response to its new wealth, and in this way the county’s plans for its future are the inevitable flowering of its history. Tunica has shared that history, for the most part, with the rest of the Mississippi Delta.
IN defining the boundaries of what he regarded as a distinct region, the writer David Cohn famously remarked in 1935 that the Mississippi Delta “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” In fact the Delta begins twenty-eight miles south of the Peabody, just north of the Tunica County border, where the hills abruptly end and Highway 61 descends into a land that unrolls as flat as a floor to the horizon. And “the Delta” is not really a delta but an alluvial plain 200 miles long and seventy miles wide at its widest, across which the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers flooded and receded for millennia, depositing their riches, until the Delta became, as Cohn described it, “pure soil endlessly deep, dark, and sweet.” It is probably the richest soil in the world. In the 1820s, when the first planters became aware of the Delta’s agricultural potential, it was a swampy wilderness, choked with vegetation, where panthers and water moccasins lurked–“a seething lush hell,” as one eighteenth-century scholar described it.
The historian James C. Cobb, perhaps the leading authority on the region, has called the Mississippi Delta “the most southern place on earth.” Its history is the history of the South at its most extreme. From the start the Delta presented an opportunity for high-stakes gambling. The soil promised quick riches in cotton, but those who tried to win them risked cholera, malaria, and typhoid fever, and climatic extremes ranging from drought to floods to frost. Those whose bodies survived the diseases and whose crops survived the weather could see the whole endeavor come to nothing in the fickle cotton market. Such a gamble attracted wealthy landowners from the East whose plantations were wearing out and who could afford the enormous investment in cash and slaves necessary to clear and drain and cultivate the land. Producing a profitable cotton crop in the Delta required physical labor above all. By 1850 the slaves on whom the planters depended for this labor outnumbered whites in the most developed area of the Delta by more than fourteen to one.
Black men and women transformed the Delta. As Cohn explained, without the African-American there would be no Delta as we know it today.
The Negro’s identification with the life of the Delta is fundamental and complete. . . . It was he who brought order out of a primeval wilderness, felling the trees, digging the ditches and draining the swamps. The vast rampart on the levees upon whose existence the life of the Delta depends sprang from the sweat and brawn of the Negro. Wherever one looks in this land, whatever one sees that is the work of man, was erected by the toiling, straining bodies of the blacks.
With its grueling, year-round work, malarial swamps, and planter class frantic to see its gamble pay off, the Mississippi Delta was perhaps the worst place in America to be a slave. Being “sold down the river” to the Delta quickly developed a reputation as a death sentence. At the other extreme the members of the Delta’s white elite, freely spending their profits in dissipation and ostentation, soon became known for their pursuit of the good life. Poor and middle-class whites had no place in this plantation economy. “By the middle of the nineteenth century,” Cobb writes, “the Delta had already assumed an enduring identity as a region where a wealthy, pleasure-seeking, and status-conscious white elite exploited the labor of a large and thoroughly subjugated black majority.”
Long after the Civil War whites remained convinced that their success depended on the Delta’s being a place where their interests, solely because of their race, always came first. As one Tunica County planter told a sharecropper early in this century, “This is a place for me to make a profit, not you.”
However subjugated, blacks were essential in the Delta, since the cotton plantations continued to require a large labor force. Delta whites thus had to coexist with a group they feared but on whom they depended, and this, along with a bedrock of racial animosity, underlay the relationship between the races for decades. Beginning in the late 1940s, when cotton production was mechanized, eliminating the need for most agricultural labor, this relationship changed fundamentally. “By the end of the 1960s,” Cobb maintains, “Delta blacks [were] largely superfluous to the economic interests of Delta whites”–a situation that largely defines race relations in the Delta today.
Although mechanization spurred a huge black migration to the North–part of the largest population movement in American history–African-Americans still make up nearly 70 percent of the Delta’s population. The paramount problem in Tunica, from the point of view of many whites, is what to do with this group that stayed behind–a black majority disproportionately unemployed, dependent, and miserably educated, a population that many whites regard as dross. In fact, the wish of some whites, one white woman from Tunica whispered to us recently, “is for [black people] to go away,” leaving Tunica for the whites. For both political and economic reasons, this has been true since mechanization. The black population, for its part, seems pretty well convinced that its fortunes in Tunica will never change. This resignation gives rise to a resentful passivity, which the white population perceives as an unwillingness or inability on the part of blacks to improve their situation. The behavior of each side thus confirms the worst suspicions of the other.
TUNICA is really two communities, deeply divided by race and wealth, and the economic boom that was at first greeted as a universal good has in many ways exacerbated the county’s division. Blacks believe that even if casino revenues prove to be a rising tide that lifts all boats, it still won’t lift them out of their subordinate position. Some blacks fear that Tunica’s new prosperity might make their place in the county even more marginal.
Whereas legalized gambling is the most recent in a series of attempts to bring industry to the area, historically such efforts have been designed to retain and increase the minority white population rather than to create employment for blacks. Many of Tunica’s whites, it seems, see casino gambling as a means to transform Tunica into a white middle-class exurb of Memphis.
Ken Murphree, the county administrator, talks hopefully about golf courses, factory-outlet malls, and retirement communities to solidify Tunica’s new image as a center for recreation and leisure. His wife, Connie Murphree, points out that Tunica’s quiet rural atmosphere would make it a haven for those who want to escape urban problems. If the casinos succeed, and the leisure industry develops as its boosters hope, the county will attract young couples wanting to work and retirees ready to play, and will house them in new condominiums and planned communities. Eventually Tunica will attract middle-class families with jobs in Memphis who want a better house on more land than they can afford in the city, and the county, with what its promoters call a “nice little Southern town” at its core, will prosper as a bedroom community for Memphis and a retirement center for the mid-South.
Tunica’s blacks are conspicuously absent from this vision. In fact, it’s impossible to reconcile the existence of a majority population that is still desperately poor and difficult to employ with this idea of what Tunica’s boosters would like the county to become. Already, with the rise in land values, those who are ill equipped to take advantage of Tunica’s new opportunities are seeing their rents skyrocket while their housing remains substandard. As Clifford Cox, the director of Tunica Habitat for Humanity, observed over coffee last summer, “This county is so dollar-signs-in-the-eyes that they’re not looking at the small community–the citizens that are already here. They’re concentrating on how to bring people in.”
Tunica’s transformation seems to be off to a good start. One of the county’s largest landowners has joined with developers from Memphis to build a planned community in Robinsonville, near the casinos. But some of Tunica’s blacks worry that the closer the county’s leaders come to realizing their vision, the more marginalized the black population will become. Although an influx of families with good incomes would seem to be a boon to the county’s educational system, for instance, Willie Dismuke, the high school principal, assumes that such growth will ultimately result in two public schools, one for affluent white newcomers, one for poor black Tunica natives. (Indeed, a new elementary school to serve the anticipated population boom in the Robinsonville area is now under consideration.) Whether or not events prove Dismuke right, his assumption that Tunica will steadfastly remain two communities even if the county’s economy and population change radically shows a striking lack of confidence in Tunica’s ability or willingness to allow race relations to change.
FROM the time when public schooling for Tunica’s blacks meant one-room schoolhouses on the plantations, where education was limited by the demands of the cotton crop and stopped at eighth grade; through the period 1952-1970, when the schoolhouses were closed and blacks and whites attended separate and unequal elementary and high schools; through desegregation, when the white community abruptly and en masse abandoned Tunica’s public schools, the county’s educational system has epitomized its racial divide. Today the debate over how much of Tunica’s new wealth should be spent on public education brings the county’s racial division to a head.
To the county board of supervisors, which is 60 percent white, investing in Tunica means building infrastructure to support the casinos and to attract more business. (The board has also been pleased to cut property taxes by 50 percent, thanks to the counpy’s new casino-generated income.) This may seem like a reasonable course for developing the county, but it neglects the most obvious obstacle to the economic progress of Tunica’s majority.
Mississippi’s public schools are considered the worst in the nation, and Tunica’s school system is among the worst in Mississippi. Tunica’s school district ranked 152 out of 153 in a statewide literacy exam in 1995, and its students have consistently tested so poorly on various achievement exams that the Mississippi Department of Education has placed the district on probation for seven of the past eight years. Although the casinos have tried to hire Tunicans as often as possible, if only for the sake of good public relations, they have found most blacks from Tunica to be unprepared for all but the most menial positions. Illiteracy plagues the black population, and many of Tunica’s blacks lack the math skills not only to be dealers but, according to the casinos, even to make change.
Improving Tunica’s abysmal public education would seem to be an obvious first step in any effort to better the lives of its citizens and strengthen the county’s economic prospects overall, but originally the supervisors were not going to allot any of the county’s take to the public schools. And although in many places public education unites parents of different races and economic levels, in Tunica the coalition of community activists and teachers that hired a lawyer to get the county to allocate casino revenues to the schools was entirely black.
In response to the black community’s continuing demands that the county devote more money to education, many in the white community maintain that the schools’ problems do not stem from a lack of funds. They suggest that the Tunica school district has for years spent more per pupil than the average Mississippi school district. In 1986, however, Tunica ranked 142 out of 154 in per-pupil spending. Today, largely thanks to state and federal money, Tunica does indeed spend more than the Mississippi average on its pupils, but to argue that the amount is adequate seems somewhat disingenuous, since far more than average expenditure would be required to offset the extreme disadvantages under which Tunica’s black students labor. Certainly whites in Tunica need not have bad intentions to believe that the windfall from the casinos is better spent on infrastructure, but their motives are automatically suspect whenever a decision involves the public schools, because they long ago forsook that institution. It is no doubt galling to many blacks in Tunica that whites make choices about schools they didn’t attend and to which they don’t send their children, and equally galling to many whites that they must help support schools they don’t use.
Perhaps most frustrating for the black population is that Tunica does not seem eager to make a place for even those blacks who have been able to take advantage of the new opportunities the casinos have presented to improve their lives. Some black Tunicans have managed to earn enough money working in the casinos to get themselves off welfare. Now they would like to buy houses in the community where their families have lived for generations. Whereas it would seem that these are just the sort of citizens that Tunica might like to keep, the county is in fact offering them little reward for their efforts. Few low-cost, decent houses are available in Tunica, and there seems to be some effort to keep things that way. Perceiving a new market, Bob Hall, a local developer, is trying to build houses that those blacks who are now steadily employed can afford with a Federal Housing Administration loan, and he blames the town’s planning commission for trying to stall him. According to Hall, who is white, people argue that they don’t want “that kind of housing,” which he translates to mean that they don’t want “any more houses for black people to live in.”
Although Sister Gus Griffin concedes that the white community has become more willing than it was in the past to permit changes that will help the black population, she nevertheless believes that whites on the whole are unlikely “to do anything to make it easier for African-Americans to live in Tunica.” Surprisingly, however, given this atmosphere, even those blacks who now have the means to leave Tunica want to stay. A love for the place is one of the few things blacks and whites share in Tunica. Reflecting the views of many in the black community, Freddie Brandon, a board member of a Tunica housing-assistance organization, asserted during a conversation last fall, “This is our home; we’re not going anywhere.”
IT remains to be seen whether Tunica’s gamble on casinos will pay off in the long run. County officials and the Chamber of Commerce eye neighboring states and counties nervously, fearing that if Memphis, for instance, decides to throw its doors open to casinos, a substantial number of Tunica’s gamblers will drift away. The next year, according to developers and local officials, is crucial: if no competing market emerges in that time, Tunica will be so well established as a gaming mecca that future competition will pose little threat. If all goes well, by early 1997 the county will have consolidated its position, reassuring still more developers that Tunica is a safe investment and encouraging them to sink their money into the rich Delta soil.
Whatever their future, the casinos are booming in Tunica now, and although, located seven miles from the county seat, they have not yet penetrated Tunica’s core, they are certainly edging the county into modern America. Dinner out in Tunica used to mean fried catfish or chitterlings at the Blue and White, which caters mostly to whites, or Vada’s Diner, which caters mostly to blacks. Now a Tunican need only drive to the Circus Circus casino to order cioppino and tiramisu. More important, the casinos are happy to take everybody’s money. “We love to go out to eat out there,” Sister Gus says, “to see people of both races sitting down in the same room.” As employers, too, the casinos are potentially a progressive force that could push Tunica out of its well-worn groove. They are a source of wealth and opportunity beyond the control of the traditional economic and political powers in the county. And with no interest in anything but turning a profit, they have no stake in maintaining Tunica’s caste system.
If the casinos succeed in jarring the county out of decades of economic and social stagnation, Tunica will have an opportunity far more profound than anyone could have imagined just three years ago: it will have the means to remake itself. If it so chooses, Tunica can use its new resources to prepare its people to take advantage of the chance afforded by the casinos. The county can define its needs as the needs of the majority of its citizens. But if it is true, as one longtime white Tunica resident asserts, echoing an oft-repeated observation, that whites “want things to stay the same; they don’t want blacks to get ahead,” it is unlikely, to say the least, that Tunica will make this choice. Even if there are many exceptions to this dismal assessment, focusing on changing the lives of the county’s poor would mean sacrificing the strides the county could make were it not hampered by this population–sacrificing, in other words, the vision of Tunica as a prosperous white exurb.
To arrive at a thriving exurb of golf courses and retirement condos, those who would re-create the county must essentially see Tunica as a blank canvas. Then they can decide how best to work with the medium they have been given–the casinos–to bring the place (although not necessarily its population) to its fullest potential. Ironically, the economic tide that should be bringing black Tunicans into the mainstream may instead allow white Tunica to push them even further into the backwater, while white Tunicans chase their dream of a prosperous rural southern town–essentially what the town of Tunica would be today if the black areas at its edges could be ignored.
As prosperous people move into Tunica, for instance, they will dilute the force of poverty there by making what is now a poor black majority–with potential, if not actual, political power–an underclass minority. This population will decrease not only in relative size but also in absolute number, as those who cannot take advantage of the new economic opportunities are displaced by the rising rents that accompany prosperity. So although the casinos help to alleviate the county’s poverty, they are also a means by which the middle class can distance itself from the poor in Tunica, as it has in much of the rest of the United States.
If rising costs pressure the black poor and they find Tunica uncomfortable, they can always go to Memphis, as some whites have suggested in exasperation. Such a “solution” is hardly original. In moving out, Tunica’s blacks would, from the point of view of the white community, be following the pattern of black migration that occurred earlier in this century, leaving the county because they are not economically useful there. Moreover, Memphis has an inner city populated by impoverished blacks, so white Tunicans fall in line with the rest of the country when they identify the ghetto as the place where poor blacks belong.
“Solving” problems by turning one’s back on them has long been the American way. It is in some sense the flip side of pursuing opportunity. This attitude brought much of America’s population here in the first place. It was also the way of those who abandoned their worn-out, useless land and settled the Delta. It is often a way to better oneself, to get ahead, but it becomes a different matter when those who are turning their backs equate the problem they are escaping with people. It is one thing to abandon land when it has outlived its economic usefulness, and another to abandon a population.
Because the county has maintained such a distance between the races, white Tunica can disassociate itself from the county’s problems by equating them with the black population–much the way whites in Los Angeles, say, view their city’s impoverished minorities as a foreign presence imposed on the place, depressing its economy and culture. Such an attitude, ungenerous everywhere, is especially misguided in Tunica, where blacks have been a majority since the Delta was settled. In fact, if either group can claim more credit for making the Delta prosper, it is the African-Americans. If they belong anywhere, they belong in a place that they built, sharing in its prosperity.
Those who believe and can behave as if the fates of blacks and whites in Tunica are not bound together are fooling themselves. In explaining how the white southerner is defined by the African-American, despite the separation of the races, William Styron has written, “In the South [the African-American] is a perpetual and immutable part of history itself, a piece of the vast fabric so integral and necessary that without him the fabric dissolves.” Much as they might wish and work to do so, it is more than a century too late for whites and blacks in the Delta, “the most southern place on earth,” to divorce themselves from one another without losing an integral part of themselves.