Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) recently defended Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith for joking about “public hanging” — in a state with one of the highest numbers of public lynchings — by deflecting and calling abortion Black genocide.
Hyde-Smith made the joke in a video released last weekend, which shows her saying that if one of her supporters invited her to a “public hanging,” she’d be in “the front row.” Hyde-Smith is in a runoff against against Democratic candidate and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Epsy, who is Black.
But Bryant insisted on Tuesday that if people are really concerned about racism, they should be looking at abortion instead.
“Absolutely we have been sensitive to race relations in this state,” said Bryant, who fielded questions for Hyde-Smith during a press conference and physically stood in front of her, serving both as a literal and metaphorical shield. “Today, I talked about the genocide of over 20 million African American children. See, in my heart, I am confused about where the outrage is at about 20 million African American children that have been aborted.”
Not sure who looked worse here, Mississippi Gov Phil Bryant or Senate candidate Cindy Hyde Smith. Either way, this might be the most impressive — and by that, I mean the worst — pivot ever. pic.twitter.com/4Ck5AJnyA7
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) November 14, 2018
Bryant, who aspires to end abortions in Mississippi, repeated a common myth within the anti-choice movement. (So common, there’s even a documentary about it.) The idea is abortion poses a distinct threat to Black lives. This myth is not only regurgitated by white people, but many Black religious leaders, including Rev. Clenard Childress Jr.
Anti-choice activists aim to tether abortion and racism because of the real history of medical racism, specifically in reproductive health like the coerced sterilization of people of color throughout the 20th century. Abortion foes like Bryant have thus capitalized on the merited skepticism of clinical care among a marginalized community.
“Am I offended? Do I think it’s disgusting and vile? Absolutely. And I absolutely think it’s racist,” said co-founder and executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, Laurie Bertram Roberts.
“No one from the anti-choice movement, almost never, frames white women — who have the most abortions in the country — as having committed genocide. It’s a specific charge that they only lodge at Black women. It’s a specific type of shaming and stigmatizing.” (While no one race makes up the majority of abortions, most abortion patients are white and people of color are a disproportionate share.)
Perhaps the best word to describe Bryant’s behavior is “misogynoir,” or misogyny targeting Black women. The term was coined by queer Black feminist scholar Moya Bailey, who needed to articulate the realities of racialized sexism and sexist racism. Shyrissa Dobbins-Harris argues for the National Black Law Journal that the abortion-is-Black-genocide myth heavily depends on misogynoir as opposed to the legal definition of genocide (as outlined by the United Nations) or abortion (as decided by Roe v. Wade).
“The myth of abortion as Black genocide depends on denying Black women their humanity and their agency to make medical decisions regarding their reproduction,” wrote Dobbins-Harris.
“The underlying assumption of this myth is that Black women lack the critical thinking skills to avoid falling into the pitfall of ‘murdering their babies’.”
Online spectators saw Bryant’s comment for what it is: a white man defending one of his own at the expense of Black women. “Pay attention to how whiteness works for women,” said reproductive justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman on Twitter. “When Cindy Hyde-Smith needs to be bailed out for her racism, Governor Bryant saves her by denigrating Black women, claiming that our need for an abortion is somehow worse than her cavalier racism.”
What’s more is that the Bryant administration has overhauled the welfare system as much as it has abortion access; he even was honored for it. Bryant’s upheaval of the safety net program impacts the same people who have abortions, as the majority of patients are low-income, have at least one child, and frequently cite the ability to care for current dependents as one of the reasons they sought the procedure.
While Mississippi is not one of the states that actually siphons welfare dollars to crisis pregnancy centers (clinics that have nothing to do with poverty but whose only goal is to stop abortion), it is a state where the government is stingier with benefits and where a larger share of Black families live. Indeed, the state rejects nearly all residents who apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), subjects applicants to work requirements and drug testing, and ultimately gives recipients $170 a month for a family of three.
Government assistance programs should be more generous given the fact that the Annie E. Casey Foundation annual Kids Count report ranked Mississippi last place in 2017 on economic well-being. This hits children especially hard; one in three children live in poverty and the figure is more stark among Black children.
“It’s so absurd and egregious to have someone like Phil Bryant say what he’s saying about Black women and wanting to protect Black babies when he has done everything in his power to keep people off of TANF,” Bertram Roberts told ThinkProgress.
“If he cared about the ways people ended up with unwanted pregnancies then he would invest in the things that make those situations happen… he would also try to create equity in making the choice to parent, regardless of their situation.”