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Cases of bottled water are handed out at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site on August 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo: Brad Vest/Getty Images)

The Roots of the Water Crisis in Jackson

Thinly veiled racism enshrined the idea that rugged individualism, not collective care, should be the ethic of government.

Shea Howell

This week, many of us have been thinking about the people in Jackson, Mississippi. Heavy rains overwhelmed the aging water treatment plant. Now the city is without safe water. People cannot drink, wash, or brush their teeth with the sludge that comes out of the tap.

The white, corporate backlash against Black liberation and civil rights brought us Ronald Reagan and the neo-liberal idea that government spending was the problem.

Jackson, like most places across this land, has inherited an aging infrastructure and has been repeatedly denied funds to maintain, repair, and develop its water system. After WWII, many communities saw a resurgence in spending on public goods. Highways, bridges, and roads were upgraded. Public housing and health initiatives were created and educational programs from preschool through universities grew. Images of a war on poverty and model cities promised a renewed commitment to a more equal and generous society. None of these efforts funded by federal money was without contradiction. Often these programs became a means of benefiting whites at the expense of African Americans and other communities of color. Still, they reflected a belief that we are collectively responsible for the things that make life possible, meaningful, and productive: food, housing, transportation, health care, and education.

But the white, corporate backlash against Black liberation and civil rights brought us Ronald Reagan and the neo-liberal idea that government spending was the problem. Thinly veiled racism enshrined the idea that rugged individualism, not collective care, should be the ethic of government. As a result, federal spending on public goods shrank dramatically. A comprehensive report in 2015, at the peak of the water crisis in Detroit, found that from 1956 to 2015 federal spending on water infrastructure decreased dramatically. The report concluded:

Funding levels have decreased … nearly fourfold between 1980 and 2014. The consequence for communities nationwide is even more significant when considering that a majority of the federal funds in the 1970s and 1980s were provided as grants, while the majority of the funds provided since the 1990s have primarily been loans.

More recently a study by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2021 noted:

Damage from urban flooding causes $9 billion in losses annually. Yet across the country, stormwater remains the least funded of the water infrastructure needs. At the same time, the country has started to recognize that existing funding structures for infrastructure and other priorities should be more equitable. For communities already struggling to remain financially solvent and provide basic services, the added cost of stormwater management is sometimes overlooked, causing the community further harm from flooding and environmental degradation.

Today, with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Governors will again have federal money to invest in infrastructure. For Jackson, this means many of the decisions about its future are in the hands of a hostile legislature and governor who have already shown unparalleled levels of corruption and contempt for the city.

Almost no one thinks that if Jackson were white and wealthy it would experience this long standing crisis. Jackson is not only a majority Black city, but it historically played a key role in the struggles for justice. One of my favorite colleges, Tougaloo, represents a commitment of people to create systems of education out of the pain of enslavement. Tougaloo was a haven for civil rights workers and Freedom Riders, offering protection against violent white supremacists. Medgar Evers, the first field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi was assassinated at his home in Jackson. The Republic of New Africa envisioned a freedom land there and Jackson Rising has inspired millions of people thinking of new ways of living.

This progressive history and current possibility explain why there is little sense of urgency on the part of the corporate power structure to repair the waters of Jackson. We in Michigan understand this dynamic. We saw it in Flint as people went for years without safe drinking water and were told there was "no problem." We see it in Detroit as water shut offs continue and our mayor refuses to acknowledge that water is a basic human right and a sacred trust.

Jackson reminds us of our connections, our collective responsibility, and the importance of each of us doing what we can to move toward justice. You can contribute directly to protect people on the ground at Water connects us all.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Shea Howell

Shea Howell is a professor and chair of the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University in Rochester, MI, where she teaches courses on communication theory and multicultural and political communication. Her most recent book is Making Sense of Political Ideology.

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