Jackson, Mississippi water crisis is a systemic issue

Jackson, Mississippi water crisis is a systemic issue

Allyson Wright and Ashleigh Connor, Contributing Writers

For the last seven weeks, residents in Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, have not had access to clean water. In late August, severe thunderstorms and flooding overwhelmed the city’s poorly maintained water treatment plant, leaving nearly 160,000 residents without access to potable water. Schools and businesses shut down and residents survived off of bottled water. Although Jackson’s Boil Water Notice was lifted on Thursday, the problem is far from over. The crisis is nothing new: residents have been dealing with water-related issues for years as a result of systemic racism.

Mississippi is a red state, led for much of its past by racist, white political leaders. As a result, Black majority neighborhoods often lack basic necessities such as water and thus suffer extreme consequences, like those occurring now in Jackson. Jackson is the city with the second largest Black population in the United States — nearly 81% of its residents identify as Black or African American. Mississippi is also the poorest state in America, with 19.6% of residents living in poverty. Jackson’s urban population has declined steadily since schools integrated in 1980, and as white people have fled to the suburbs, the city has had less money to maintain its infrastructure. Decades and decades of deferred water treatment plant maintenance meant that it was only a matter of time before a disaster like this occurred. 

Water insecurity in areas populated by minorities is a historical trend. In 1970, a small, predominantly Black town called Rosedale in Mississippi protested the lack of municipal services because their all-white government failed to provide Black areas with the same services as white areas. It didn’t matter that the people of Rosedale paid the same taxes as neighboring white areas; the services they needed to sustain a healthy lifestyle were not priorities for their government. Born out of the protest, a federal court ruled that cities must equalize funding for public services in Black and white neighborhoods in 1971’s Hawkins v. Shaw decision. Although the case did a lot of good, we can see with Jackson’s crisis and countless others that political leaders and the government can still deprive Black communities of their fundamental human rights. The fact that this court ruling was not effective shows that laws preventing environmental racism need to be better enforced by our government and political leaders.

For the past two years, Jackson residents have not gone a month without a Boil Water Notice and have had low to no water pressure. Drinking contaminated water can cause detrimental health effects, such as gastrointestinal illnesses, nervous system or reproductive defects, and cancer. Citizens have been forced to adapt to these inhumane conditions while those in power use state funds for infrastructure in other towns and cities — but not Jackson — despite the clear need. This is a race issue. In Long Beach, Mississippi, which is 87.15% white, water is safe, available, and plentiful. It is sickening that the government has done little to resolve the long-term issue because those being affected are poor people of color. 

The media is part of the problem. Up until very recently, major news outlets did not broadcast information about the water crisis. How is it that a city depriving nearly 200,000 people of a basic human right was not good enough for front page news? The media too often neglects atrocities that systems of power commit against communities of color. Make no mistake, the lack of media coverage about the Jackson water crisis is not a fluke. While we cannot say with certainty if it was a result of conscious or unconscious bias, the reality is that most major media outlets in our country tailor themselves towards a white, paying audience. Therefore, they assume that injustices against poor people of color will not resonate with their audience and leave many tragedies unacknowledged.

Since the start of the school year, the lack of water bottles in the cafeteria has been a frequent topic of conversation. We understand the frustration, but we hope that reading about Jackson’s crisis contextualizes those complaints against the struggle that many face simply to access clean drinking water, one that we do not experience as HM students. There are countless water fountains and water stations around campus; all you have to do is bring a water bottle. The reality is that not everyone in this country has access to clean drinking water, so complaining about having to use reusable water bottles reeks of privilege and ignorance. 

There are ways that we can help, even as students. Donate money to aid the people living in Jackson: The Mississippi Food Network, the Helping Friends and Neighbors Fund (Disaster Relief Fund) at the Community Foundation for Mississippi, and the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition are great organizations that help provide the people of Jackson with clean water. Apart from donations, it is important that we spread awareness about what’s happening in Jackson. Many people still do not know about the crisis. Educating yourself and others about water insecurity is necessary to eventually resolve this issue, as widespread social awareness and public pressure on issues often lead to long-term behavioral changes, whether that is in our community or in the behavior of the political leaders in Jackson. The state of Mississippi has ignored the cries of people of color for far too long.