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Leonard Pitts: Doesn’t Mississippi have more pressing concerns?

A portrait of Mississippi:

It has a lower percentage of high school graduates than almost any other state. It has an unemployment rate higher than almost any other state.

Mississippi’s fourth-graders perform more poorly than any other children in the country in math. Also in reading. Its smoking rates are among the highest in the country. Along with West Virginia, it is the fattest state in the Union. It has the highest poverty rate and the lowest life expectancy.

Small wonder 24/7 Wall Street, a content provider for Yahoo!, Time and USA Today, among others, has dubbed Mississippi the “worst state to live in.”

All of which provides a certain pungent context for what happened last week as Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law a bill legalizing discrimination against LGBT people. It is dubbed the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” which is a cynical lie. The only thing it protects is those doing the discriminating.

You want to refuse to rent to a lesbian couple? You’re covered.

You want to refuse to hire a transgendered woman? Go for it.

You want to force your gay adopted son to undergo so-called conversion therapy? No problem.

You want to kick an adulterous heterosexual out of your hardware store? Yep, the law says you can even do that.

Indeed, it says that any gay, transgendered or adulterous individual whose behavior offends the “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” of a person, for-profit business, government employee or religious organization can be refused service.

As if your sexual orientation or marital status were the business of the cashier ringing up your groceries or the barber trimming your hair.

It is worth nothing that similar laws have been propounded in other states — Georgia, Indiana, Arkansas — only to be turned back under threat of boycott by Fortune 500 companies and professional sports teams doing business there. “The worst state to live in,” was immune to that kind of pressure because it has no such teams or businesses.

You’d think that would tell them something. You’d think it would suggest to Mississippi that it has more pressing concerns than salving the hurt feelings of some putative Christian who doesn’t want to bake a cake for Lester and Steve.

But addressing those concerns would require serious thought, sustained effort, foresight, creativity and courage. It is easier just to scapegoat the gays.

So the fattest, poorest, sickest state in the Union rails against LGBT people and adulterers and never mind that if every last one of them pulled up stakes tomorrow, Mississippi would still be the fattest, poorest, sickest state in the Union.

The point is not that such bigotry would be impossible in places that are healthier or wealthier. The point is not that such places are immune to it. Rather, the point is simply this: Isn’t it interesting how reliably social division works as a distraction from things that ought to matter more?

After all, Mississippi just passed a law that 80 percent of its eighth-graders would struggle to read.

If they graduate, those young people will look for work in a state with an unemployment rate significantly higher than the national average. But if one of those kids does manage to find work at the local doughnut shop say, she will — until the law is struck down, at least — have the satisfaction of refusing service to some gay man, secure in the knowledge that the state that failed to educate her or give her a fighting chance in a complex world, now has her back.

One feels sorrier for her than for the gay man. Her life will be hemmed by the fact of living it in a state that fights the future, that teaches her to deflect and distract, not resolve and engage.

The gay man can buy doughnuts anywhere.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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