Jackson’s current water crisis flows from racism, but it’s not just an isolated problem in Mississippi. Black lives are at stake across the country where the water is literally poisonous to communities.
Suddenly, the nation’s eyes have been turned to Jackson because its largely Black population has no drinking water. Federal and state governments are mobilizing to stanch the crisis as quickly as possible, including a new investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency, while fellow Americans are sympathetic and pitching in to help this small Southern city.
But this crisis is not sudden. It is the natural outcome of right-wing policies that have prioritized power and racist agendas over the health and well-being of Black people. The right has a long track record of devaluing Black lives, including systemic neglect of Jackson’s water treatment system over several decades. And having created the crisis in Jackson by starving the city of resources to safeguard its water supply, Mississippi state officials are following the familiar right-wing script of criticizing local Black leaders whose control of services are subject to the whims of hostile state and county governments.
Instead of committing the government resources that Jackson needs — and to which its residents are entitled — Gov. Tate Reeves has floated the idea of privatizing its water system, blaming Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba and the city’s Black leaders for its appalling state. By laying the crisis at the feet of Black leadership who have been sounding the alarm bell for years, white state officials now have a convenient excuse to outsource a large utility system to their cronies — who will, again, have all the control over Black lives with minimum government accountability.
And while Jackson is in the headlines right now, it’s not news to Black people that services and utilities in our communities all over the country are not only sub-standard but lethal. In several cities at this very moment, Black residents are without the most basic element of human life and health: clean water.
More than 3,700 residents of a large New York City public housing complex don’t know whether they can drink their water after the city retracted claims that it had found arsenic in lab samples. In Baltimore, the water serving 1,500 homes is contaminated with E. coli bacteria, which some residents only learned about from their neighbors. And right next door to Mississippi but out of the headlines, Black residents of rural Alabama don’t have municipal sewage systems and have raw sewage flooding their homes regularly.
These crises stem from racist and right-wing policies that go beyond neglecting the health of Black communities. Structural racism intentionally jeopardizes our lives with practices and policies that deliberately ignore human rights and basic needs. Officials and politicians all over the country are trying to kill us in the name of white supremacy, power and control. And we will not let them.
As we have often shared, what happens in the South tends to affect Black people in the rest of the country. We’ve seen this time and time again, from the impact of Southern slavery on our national economy to the civil rights movement concentrated in the South but with clear national impact. It’s even happening today, as Black voters in Georgia swung the 2020 elections, which led to election suppression laws across the country from politicians determined to keep us from voting so they can keep their hold on power.
When Southern states refuse to expand Medicaid, more Black people become ill and die from lack of preventive care. When Southern states attack reproductive health, Black maternal and infant mortality rises disproportionately. These right-wing policies, whether cloaked in platitudes about “fiscal responsibility” or performative religious piety, are more than simply blatant attempts to harm Black people. For many in our community, these policies amount to a death sentence.
And the same is true of fiscal decisions rooted in racism. Mississippi’s Republican government has continually withheld funding for Jackson to update and maintain the antiquated infrastructure intended to provide the basic need and right to clean water. Eighty-two percent of Jackson’s 150,000 residents are Black, and although they pay local, state and federal taxes, clearly the funds that should be used to provide even the bare minimum of public services are being diverted elsewhere.
While President Biden’s declaration of emergency in Mississippi is a needed stopgap to address the immediate crisis and save lives, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — and this could have been prevented if the state government demonstrated with policies and funding that it truly values Black lives. This sentiment can be felt nationwide. A recent study published by the Pew Research Center found most Black Americans are disappointed with the lack of progress on racial inequality following George Floyd’s death. Many doubt they’ll see any changes happen in their lifetime.
That’s why we are committed to supporting our partners on the ground in Mississippi and are working to ensure resources are deployed to those in need as soon as possible. We are also spreading the word about the resources Mayor Lumumba, the city government and community-based groups are providing to residents. And we are dispelling hateful rhetoric and attempts by the far right to disparage Black leaders who, for years, have called attention to the neglect of Jackson’s infrastructure but lack the resources to modernize it.
We know that the pursuit of freedom requires that we remain vigilant 365 days a year, and we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Jackson, New York, Baltimore, Flint and around the country as they demand equality — and clean water — that is our birthright.
Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown are the co-founders of Black Voters Matter.