Racism seen as root of water crisis in US city of Jackson, Mississippi
The water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, where the majority of residents are African American, began in late August due to severe storms. Residents, politicians, experts and activists say systemic racism is the root cause.
Residents told the Associated Press and other US media outlets that even though water is coming out of their taps, in many cases it smells like raw sewage and is cloudy or discolored.
Many residents have to rely on water distribution by community-run charities or buy water again themselves, adding insult to injury.
Jackson had already been under a state health department boil-water notice for a month when torrential rain fell in August, flooding the Pearl River and overwhelming the treatment system. Water pressure abruptly dropped, emptying faucets for days.
Jackson's population has declined since 1980, a decade after the city's schools began integrating. Many white families left for the suburbs, leaving less revenue to maintain the infrastructure. Middle class Black people then moved out to escape urban decay and rising crime. State and federal spending never made up the difference.
“The legacy of racial zoning, segregation, legalized redlining have ultimately led to the isolation, separation and sequestration of racial minorities into communities (with) diminished tax bases, which has had consequences for the built environment, including infrastructure,” said Marccus Hendricks, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland.
Other cities across the United States could face similar challenges with aging water systems that are ill-equipped to handle more intense and frequent flooding caused by climate change, experts in water infrastructure and environmental justice told The Associated Press.
And when it comes to water scarcity and contamination, they say working-class communities of color are most vulnerable. Jackson's population is more than 80% Black and the poverty level is 24.5%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Majority-Black Flint, Michigan, has struggled to remove lead from its water since 2014. Other areas where large poor or nonwhite populations lack reliably safe drinking water include major cities like Baltimore and Honolulu as well as smaller municipalities like Las Vegas, New Mexico; and Benton Harbor, Michigan.
Heather McTeer Toney worked to clean up discolored tap water as mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, before serving as the Environmental Protection Agency’s southeast regional administrator from 2014 to 2017. Now she works on environmental justice issues nationwide for the Environmental Defense Fund. She said many majority-minority communities lack consistent access to clean water.
“Any community that is suffering from lack of infrastructure maintenance is dealing with the same problem, maybe just on a different scale,” Toney said. “But across the nation, with .... poor communities that are often Black, brown, Indigenous and on the frontlines of the climate crisis, we see the same thing happening over and over again.”
Hendricks and Toney blame systemic racism for government disinvestment in communities of color. Maisie Brown calls Jackson’s troubles “the product of environmental racism.”
“I don’t think we realize how deeply ingrained racism is in all of our structures and systems, including infrastructure,” said Brown, a 20-year-old student at Jackson State University who was born and raised in the city.