Last week, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox offered students at Alabama State University a glimpse of several uncomfortable truths about our state. He could have been speaking about Calhoun County.
“There are literally two Alabamas,” the Democratic nominee for governor told the students, the Montgomery Advertiser reported. “If we’re honest with ourselves and acknowledge that, we can address the problems of this state.”
Specifically, Maddox was highlighting the higher rates of incarceration, poverty and unemployment among Alabama’s black residents when compared to white residents. “In Alabama,” he said, “if you’re African-American, you’re 2 ½ times more likely to be incarcerated.” He then cited similar statistics for poverty and joblessness.
For this discussion, let’s hone in on poverty — one of the undeniable and systemic problems in east Alabama — and look at Calhoun County and its largest city, Anniston.
Anniston’s poverty rate is 32.1 percent — almost double the state’s figure, according to the U.S. Census. Nearly 17 percent of white people in Anniston live below the poverty line. For black residents, it’s an astonishing 45.3 percent.
Calhoun County’s poverty rate is better, 19.6 percent, which is slightly higher than the state figure of 18.4. But the differences are just as stark between white residents (14.3) and black residents (38.7).
For comparison and perspective, consider the figures from Wilcox County, a Black Belt county so often cited among the worst examples of the impoverished Deep South. That county’s poverty rate is 34.9 percent (slightly higher than Anniston’s), its white poverty rate is 11.2 percent (lower than Anniston’s) and its black poverty rate is 43.4 percent (slightly lower than Anniston’s).
That defines an uncomfortable truth.
Anniston’s poverty figures resemble those of the Black Belt, a region historically linked to recurring negatives about the economy in the rural South — high unemployment, weak job growth and large poverty differences between the races.
Maddox, who faces Gov. Kay Ivey on Nov. 6, is right. Sort of. Whether an election year or not, Alabama has to consider this “raw data” and be honest about the reality inside a preponderance of the state’s 67 counties. But that “raw data” he speaks of pinpoints real-world problems that envelope race, education, crime, workforce training and political bravery to do what’s best for people, not elections. History proves that Alabama’s governors and legislators are only willing to tiptoe around the edges of this profound dilemma. There’s always another election to win.
Calhoun County provides Maddox and Ivey the perfect example to test their divergent strategies about improving our state. We’re not in the Black Belt, hopelessly situated in the rural expanse between Montgomery and Mobile. Anniston, Oxford and Jacksonville offer a combined population of roughly 55,000. Birmingham is commutable. Atlanta is close. And yet?
Between now and Nov. 6, Calhoun County voters should wonder: which candidate for governor is willing to address this complex and uncomfortable truth here in east Alabama? We need solutions, not mere reassurances.