In Mississippi’s capital city, our long-failing infrastructure system is no secret. I and many other activists have pressed repeatedly for state aid to fix the city’s water pipes, but the response to this chronic problem is chronically inadequate. There is an estimated $2 billion backlog in needed repairs, Brookings reports. It’s an echo of the negligence that poisoned Flint, Mich.
The season of heavy rainstorms is upon us now. And when the rains come, residents of Jackson — where the population is 82 percent Black or African American, and a quarter of the people live in poverty — know that the runoff will overwhelm the antiquated drainage system. Streets and yards will flood. The water supply will be contaminated and a boil-water order will be issued, though those can come anytime. In my house, we’ve used only bottled water for years.
At least we’re past the season when it’s cold, water pipes will likely burst and our houses will be without running water. We know to fill our bathtubs so we have water on hand to flush the toilet.
Clean and safe water is a human right in principle, but in practice a shower is a gift. In Jackson, even showering can’t be taken for granted.
So, no, there isn’t a water crisis in Jackson.
The water problems have been decades in the making and will be decades in correcting unless major repairs are made. The people of Jackson voted for a 1-cent sales tax in 2014 that produces about $13 million annually, but those funds don’t begin to address the $2 billion repairs backlog. (In March, the city council began a movement to double the tax to 2 cents per dollar.)
I’m skeptical. Lumumba was right when he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the city’s infrastructure disaster is the product of environmental racism, divestment and White flight. “I think that you find less willingness from the state to support a city like Jackson,” he said, “because they don’t necessarily feel that the demographics of Jackson, or even the politics of Jackson, resemble the majority opinion.”
Many of the state’s White political leaders appear indifferent to the dangers to a largely Black population from a dilapidated water system. Consider the comment by Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, in early March, when much of Jackson was still without potable water. He focused instead on problems the city has had with its water billing system. “I do think it’s really important that the city of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments,” Reeves said, “before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.”
The state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Delbert Hosemann, seemed to blame Jackson’s Black elected leaders for the city’s water problems when he alluded to the administration of the most recent White mayor, who left office 24 years ago. “You remember during Kane Ditto’s administration,” Hosemann told the Mississippi Free Press in March, “he did repair work on water and sewer. So what happened since then?”
As Mississippi Today reported in March, “Parts of Jackson’s 1,500 miles of water mains are over 100 years old.”
This isn’t a crisis, and it isn’t simply an infrastructure problem. It’s what happens when a state with a sorry racial history fails to help ensure that the citizens of a largely Black city have reliable access one of the most basic human needs: safe, clean water.