The new plantation?
In Mississippi's catfish plants, critics charge that blacks do the work, while whites enjoy the profits.
Catfish are on parade in Belzoni. Five-feet tall and made of fiberglass, Mr. "Pablo Picatfish" hangs out on Hayden Street, looking happy. "Ms. Fishin' for Words" - in pink lipstick and a tutu - stands grinning outside the library. And the lovely "Mrs. Small Fry" lounges around Magnolia Street with her whiskered pal "Johnnie C. Fish."Skip to next paragraph
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The community artwork project celebrates that lowly aquatic vertebrate which, say officials in the mayor's office, also happens to be the pride and joy of this sleepy Mississippi Delta town. Seventy-two percent of all pond-raised catfish eaten on the planet come from this region. True, they might not be flashy like Chilean sea bass, or expensive like Norwegian salmon. But in the self proclaimed "Catfish capital of the world," that's all they've got.
"And we are grateful," says Paulet Solomon, who works the reception at Belzoni's Catfish Museum.
Catfish farming and processing are the mainstay of the economy in this region, providing employment for thousands, and bringing in about $300 million a year to one of the most depressed regions in the country. According to recent Census Bureau statistics, more than 40 percent of the population in Belzoni's Sunflower County live in poverty. Same goes for nearby Humphreys County, birthplace of B.B. King. The unemployment rate throughout the region hovers at 20 percent, infant mortality rates are higher than anywhere else in the United States, and less than half the youngsters graduate from high school. Blacks make up almost two-thirds of the population.
"If the catfish industry was not here, they would all be on welfare," says Ms. Solomon. "Anything to boost the economy is good - who would argue with that?"
And yet, the story of the catfish industry in the Mississippi Delta might not be as straightforward and worthy of unbridled celebration as it seems. Behind the grinning faces of the merry catfish parade, is a story as unclear as the waters in which the whiskered creatures crawl.
It's 5 p.m. and workers are streaming out of the Country Select processing plant in Isola, a few miles north of Belzoni. It's late autumn, and the setting sun casts a reddish light.
Men and women in blue overalls pour into the workers' parking lot, picking out grit from under their nails and removing the plastic coverings over their hair. Two or three are Hispanic, but everyone else is black.
At the same time, a group of white workers come out a different door, walking to cars in reserved spaces, wearing business jackets and loosely fitted ties.
"This is nothing more or less than the modern-day plantation," charges Ronald Myers, a Baptist minister, doctor, jazz musician - and self-appointed agitator of the Delta catfish industry. "It's the racist capital of the world!"
Those who do most to make the industry a success, argues Myers - the blacks who do most of the hard work in the farms and processing plants as well as then buying and eating most of the catfish - are the ones getting the least benefit from it.
Having unskilled, minority labor is not unique to the Delta, points out Tom Buchanan, a sociologist at the University at Chattanooga who recently wrote a study of the industry. But, he writes, "the elites here have ... successfully been able to assume that this work force remains unskilled and without opportunities." Dr. Buchanan points out that the isolation of the Delta and the lack of other alternatives have created a situation in which labor relations are indeed "uniquely reminiscent of plantation slavery."
Years of unhappy murmurings - or, in the case of Dr. Myers, vociferous protests - have basically led nowhere.
Accusations of black workers being mistreated in this plant or another - claims of unhealthy work conditions, limits on bathroom visits, white supervisors with stop watches, even sexual abuse - are impossible to verify. Stories vary, and no legal action has ever been sought against a processing plant or a farm.
One strike was mounted to protest work conditions at Freshwater Farms in 1998, but it quickly ended with the firing of the protestors who had no-strike clauses in their contracts.
If one thing is indisputable, however, it is that here the vast majority of workers on the production or "kill" line - doing the skinning, cutting, and gutting of the fish - are black and getting minimum wage or slightly above. And the vast majority of front-office personnel are white and making above minimum wage. More significantly, all the catfish farm and processing plant owners are white.