Dirty Boots: “Our Last-ness”

In Alabama, thinkers from all points on the political spectrum seem to enjoy raising the issue of our last-ness. Whether the tone toward the facts is deep consternation, an indifferent shrug, or something in-between, the tendency to comment on or allude to our position at the bottom spans the boundaries of race, gender, class, and political affiliation. We all seem to have something to say about it— me included.

US News & World Report currently ranks Alabama as 49th overall among the states, with a breakdown showing that we’re 50th in Education, 46th in Healthcare, and 45th in the categories of Economy, Opportunity, and Crime & Corrections. The only shining light there is being ranked 23rd in Fiscal Stability, which I take to mean that our situation is more likely than half the states’ to stay how it is. (Despite the dark humor of saying “Thank God for Mississippi,” Louisiana actually came in last, while the Magnolia State was in the slot above us.)

Alabama also has the worst prison system in the nation, including the highest murder rates within those prisons. The system houses about 16,000 inmates in conditions so severely overcrowded, unclean, and unsafe that the US Department of Justice has declared them to be unconstitutional. We lack both a statewide public defender system and strong rehabilitation programs, which leads us to put too many people in prison for too long. A recent news report from al.com shared that, if Alabama was country, not a state, we would have the 5th highest incarceration rate in the world:

Alabama’s rate of incarceration – at 987 people in jail or prison for every 100,000 people – dwarfs those of every nation around the globe, including those of troubled countries like Iraq, Cuba and Syria.

Last month, a report from Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Alabama 44th in child well-being, with a break down of 44th in Economic Well-Being, 38th in Education (in contrast to US News saying 50th), 36th in Health, and 44th in Family & Community. What appears to have helped us in the Health area was AllKids, a children’s health insurance program for low-income families. The confusing side of this report is that Alabama improved in sub-areas but dropped two spots in the overall ranking. The disheartening side of it is reading that we have 265,000 children living in poverty and 24,000 teenagers who are neither in school nor working.

In addition to those rankings, CDC statistics also rank Alabama second-to-last in infant mortality with a rate of 9.6 per 1,000. Mississippi really was worse this time – much worse, at 11.5 – though four other states’ rates came close to ours (between 9.0 and 9.5) The national average is 5.8, a rate we nearly double. Infant mortality is a particularly dubious category, since it concerns the number of babies that die before their first birthday. This dismal fact is one of several, too, that relate to our children.

Furthermore, as peripheral consequence of our consistent refusal to deal with deplorable conditions, unproductive systems, and errant personalities, Alabama’s 4.7 million residents also endure every kind of harassment, from the jibes of comedians to threats of boycotts on social media. In recent years alone, our state’s historical footprint, which already included slavery, J. Marion Sims, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, George Wallace, and resistance to Civil Rights, has added Roy Moore, Goodloe Sutton, and super-strict immigration and abortion laws to an already intense litany.

Personally, I’m more interested in remedies for our last-ness than in the sheer fact of it, and I only see one viable long-term fix: to rewrite Alabama’s state constitution to create a new system of governance that works in the twenty-first century. Our current governing document was crafted nearly 120 years ago with the express goal “to establish white supremacy in this State,” and it is outmoded, outdated, and outlandish. This constitution concentrates power in the state legislature, which has control over budgets, lawmaking, everything, even some local matters. Looking at it pragmatically, a new constitution could be written to achieve a balance of powers, and systems could be designed to achieve modern and worthwhile goals, as opposed to continuing a system that was created to serve ugly and hateful goals and to suit a time that does not resemble ours. The solution is not to elect different officials— the solution, which will require courage, fortitude, and honesty, is to re-design the system under which those officials operate. Then, maybe, if we reboot Alabama’s politics entirely, we can begin a true journey toward progress.


“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige,” a weekly column published every Tuesday afternoon, offers a Deep Southern, Generation X perspective on life in the 21st century. To read find and read previous posts, click here for a full list.

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