Jackson’s water crisis is another Hurricane Katrina moment

It is a cruel irony that in the same week marking the anniversary of one of the worst disasters in our nation’s history – Hurricane Katrina – another is unfolding in Jackson. About 160,000 people in and around the city — which is 82 percent black — lack running water.

Yes, Jackson experienced severe storms and subsequent flooding — but this crisis was decades in the making. Underinvestment in critical infrastructure, white flight, and the prioritization of nonsensical issues like critical race theory have created a perfect storm that is now ravaging Mississippi’s largest city.

The same racially fueled crises play out over and over again: Hurricane Katrina. Flintstone, Michigan. Jackson now. It is absolutely amazing that black people in America still have to beg for basic resources.

Let’s take a look at how Mississippi leaders brought this crisis to fruition. Jackson’s water infrastructure has been in bad shape for decades. Heads of state had a myriad of ways to allocate funds to repair and strengthen the system. But instead, the predominantly white leadership chose to neglect it. That came to a head this summer. For the past month, Jackson residents have had to boil their water – a huge nuisance and a threat to public safety.

It is absolutely amazing that black people in America still have to beg for basic resources.

Now Jackson does not have running drinking water due to an outage at the city’s primary water treatment plant. As a result, companies cannot open their doors. Schools had to abruptly switch to distance learning. People struggle to cook, brush their teeth and flush their toilets. And many have waited hours for clean drinking water.

So what have Mississippi leaders done in recent years instead of devoting their time and attention to repairing critical water infrastructure?

They illegally squandered tens of millions of dollars intended for the poor on luxury cars, sporting events and cell phones. They’ve also spent months pushing legislation that purports to stop “critical race theory” but actually prevents teachers from educating students about our nation’s entire history. And they fought tooth and nail to prevent women from exercising their right to vote in the landmark case that brought Roe v. Wade toppled in the Supreme Court earlier this year. Of course, with all that thought, they didn’t have time to make sure the residents got such a basic necessity as water.

To be clear, this is part of a national pattern of willful neglect of black communities.

So what have Mississippi leaders done in recent years instead of devoting their time and attention to repairing critical water infrastructure?

Rewind to 2014, when officials in Flint, Michigan — which is majority black inhabited — decided to switch the city’s water supply to save money. They didn’t bother to properly treat and test the water – resulting in debilitating health issues, especially for children. For months, residents complained about the problem, but were consistently ignored. It was only after the community’s tireless lobbying that someone paid attention and discovered dangerous toxins in the water. In a review of the crisis, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission classified the crisis as a clear case of systemic racism.

Rewind even further to Hurricane Katrina. Because of decades of segregation and unequal investment, blacks were far more likely to live in areas prone to extreme flooding. And again, leaders have consistently refused to invest resources in infrastructure that could have mitigated the effects of the crisis. When the storm hit, people of color bore the brunt of the damage. And unsurprisingly, white, affluent communities have been able to recover much faster than black, poorer ones.

In the absence of sufficient resources, it has always been the local communities that have had to pick up the pieces. For example, after Katrina, my organization — the Mississippi Center for Justice — provided legal services to thousands of Gulf Coast residents who needed an attorney to help them fight for safe and affordable housing. We also sued the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for failing to provide adequate funding to many elderly, low-income, and minority communities and won a landmark $132 million settlement.

Now, in the Jackson water crisis, many groups in Mississippi are stepping up to bring water to those in need.

But community members shouldn’t have to be on the front lines of major crises. We must prevent crises in the first place and mitigate their effects when they occur. Basically, this means fighting deep-rooted racism.

About Mike Crayton

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