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Opinion | Racism caused the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi as much as the weather did

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Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves told the media this week, “I do think it’s really important that the City of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.”

As the governor gave that lecture on March 3 in his state’s capital city, thousands of homes near where he sat in Jackson were without even non-potable water to flush their toilets, and not a single home in the city limits had access to safe drinking water we could use without boiling first.

The Monday before Reeves’ flippant remark about the majority-Black capital city, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann threw out a telling statement of his own when he criticized the poverty-stricken city for not fixing its own water system, adding, “You remember during Kane Ditto’s administration, he did repair work on water and sewer. So what happened since then?”

Mayor Ditto’s final term in office ended in 1997; people born during it are old enough to buy alcohol these days.

The real causes of Jackson’s problems are deeper and more sinister and cost much more than a neglected city can recoup by collecting on late water bills.

For people not steeped in Mississippi politics, Ditto — not coincidentally — was Jackson’s last white mayor before white-flight demographic shifts brought Harvey Johnson Jr., an urban planner and infrastructure wonk who devoted $200 million to the problem, to office. Johnson warned repeatedly of a future breakdown of our aging systems in Jackson, including around the state Capitol where Reeves and Hosemann had the temerity to lecture us. This was a system, it’s worth noting, that was not exactly handed over to Black leadership in pristine shape, with nary a crack or challenge. It was already in trouble then.

But white state leadership at the time and ever since — including those whose families left Jackson after the forced desegregation of schools in early 1970 — have typically responded to the city’s Black leaders with contempt, blank stares or condescension.

The immediate cause of the broad, systemic breakdown of Jackson’s water system was the same unprecedented cold-weather spell for which Texas received national attention in February. But the real causes of Jackson’s problems are deeper and more sinister and cost much more than a neglected city can recoup by collecting on late water bills.

Still, as my reporter at the Mississippi Free Press, Nick Judin, and I understood — because he and I grew up in the area — Reeves and Hosemann’s words augured back to a long-held talking point and belief among many white Mississippians: Black leaders just aren’t competent. And the people who elect them deserve what they get.

In the last couple days, we’ve seen the first possible signs that the state is going to grow past its old Citizens Council-era thinking and help its capital city through this water crisis.

It’s not like this belittlement tactic is accidental. It dates back to a time when Jackson was a wealthy white center of power for the state — until the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 started upending the white-supremacist status quo. Jackson political and business leaders panicked at the thought of integrated schools — and children of different races getting to know and respect each other (gasp) — as well as the prospect of Black people voting, holding top offices and ordering their sandwiches at the city’s lunch counters instead of the cafes’ backdoors.

So, via the racist Citizens’ Councils that soon spread across the U.S. as far west as San Francisco, the elites in Jackson started marketing three old and intertwined ideas, as Jackson historian Stephanie Rolph details in her book “Resisting Equality: The Citizens’ Council, 1954-1989.” First, they pushed that Black people were born inferior; second, that their supposed inferiority meant they couldn’t run things well; and third, that they are constitutionally prone to crime.

All this rhetoric has helped drive businesses and residents out of Jackson from the 1950s to this day, despite zero evidence for any of the vicious lies.

Still, the racist Citizens Councils’ putrid ideas stuck around, influencing many in and outside Mississippi. The myths were and are assisted by every possible effort to ensure that Black people — who have been redlined and discriminated out of the same wealth-generation avenues that white people had enjoyed since the slavery was legal — could not prove them wrong. Much of that has come in the form of withholding the financial resources necessary for the basic running and maintenance of, say, a capital city, its public schools and its water and sewer systems.

Be very clear: white wealth didn’t just take its money and stomp out into suburban developments (formerly known as cow pastures) to leave Black cities behind. It has, in fact, done everything possible to burn down what they couldn’t take with them — a 20th century Sherman’s march out of American cities, if you will.

Whether those in power have bothered to face our history or not, it is the state of Mississippi’s role to help fix this problem.

Many of the same prominent whites who proudly attended well-funded public schools in Jackson before integration have, since abandoning the city, done everything possible to limit even “adequate” urban school funding or to redirect the money to legacy segregation academies — now usually called “private Christian academies.” They use the state legislature to control how much Jackson can tax our own citizens in order to pay for our own needs. They won’t support desperately needed flood mitigation for the city — unless it provides rich white people with valuable waterfront development. And Medicaid expansion in the time of Covid-19? Forget about it.

White state politicians are even trying to steal one of the few major revenue generators Jackson has left. In 2016, white Mississippi Republicans began a naked attempt to take over the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport — a name, by the way, that still displeases some of the Old Guard — by passing legislation to replace its city-appointed commissioners with a state-appointed governing board, only two of whom would come from Jackson. Black legislators called the move “Jim Crow legislation.” Primary sponsors of the bill didn’t try to hide that they have real-estate interests in the whiter suburban areas just outside the airport gates.

Oh, and their continual excuse for taking it? The airport leaders aren’t up to the task of managing it. (I’ll allow you to imagine the race of those highly qualified professionals.)

On Thursday night, I co-moderated a Jackson mayoral debate in which Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba recounted that Lt. Gov. Hosemann had offered him financial help for the city — an insulting $30 million — if he would drop a lawsuit that has forestalled the theft of the airport to date. Lumumba said no, of course.

The dignity for which Jacksonians are asking includes clear drinking water, pipes without lead and toilets that flush for everyone, regardless of race.

In the last couple days — since Hosemann’s Ditto comment — we’ve seen the first possible signs that the state of Mississippi is going to grow past its old Citizens Council-era thinking and actually help its capital city through this water crisis: They are now in discussions about financial assistance of at least $47 million.

Make no mistake, the fact that low-income Jacksonians are living amid the stench of toilets that won’t flush is a direct legacy of white-supremacist thinking at the state level, not the failure of a few bill collectors in the city to collect on enough delinquent customers. Whether those who engage in that thinking have bothered to face that history or not, it is the state of Mississippi’s role to help fix this problem.

I get it, though: A racist political machine raised many white Mississippians to believe they were simply superior at running things, over any given Black leader in the state. They look at the world through white-tinged glasses and believe their power and wealth, or any power or wealth they might eventually be able to amass, is dependent on scrapping over scarcity. They think they don’t or won’t get theirs if they treat the majority-Black capital city, its leaders and its residents with the respect and dignity our citizens deserve.

That dignity for which Jacksonians are asking, though, includes clear drinking water, pipes without lead and toilets that flush for everyone, regardless of race.

It’s long, long past time to put Citizens Council-era propaganda to rest and treat Black leaders and Black Mississipians like equals, not like pawns in yet another white power game.


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