by Ellen Isaacs
September 9, 2022
We’ve all heard the news by now: the more than 150,000 people who live in Jackson, Mississippi haven’t had drinkable water in their homes since late July and no water at all from August 28 until September 7. As of then, you could at least flush a toilet. Even the local elementary school had to close. It is no surprise that 82% of Jackson’s population is black and 27% are poor.
This particular episode is the result of flooding of the Pearl River after a severe rainfall that overwhelmed the decaying water treatment plant, but it was a predictable disaster affecting a rotting infrastructure This time the flood surged into the water treatment plant that disinfects the water and then a separate backup facility also failed due to a pump failure.1 For years there have been water outages, accidents, equipment failure and burst pipes at this facility. As far back as 1989, Jackson was without water for a month when a storm overwhelmed the plant.2 In 2010 there were over 100 water main breaks in pipes many of which were over 100 years old.3 A February, 2021 winter storm caused pipes to crack and disrupted water for a month; there are frequent boil water notices and periods of low water pressure. A few years ago, elevated lead levels were found in the water.1 A lack of maintenance and staffing are responsible, said Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. He estimated it would cost $2 billion to fix the problem long term.4
“I describe myself as a revolutionary” says Lumumba, who was elected in 2017.5 The Mayor’s father and mayoral predecessor was a civil rights lawyer and a member of the black nationalist Republic of New Afrika, that advocated for a majority black independent republic in the South and reparations from the federal government. Ultimately Lumumba Sr. decided on a career in politics and was elected Mayor of Jackson in 2013.6 When he died eight months later, his son decided to take up his mantle.
Yet there seems to be little revolutionary organizing or rhetoric coming out of Jackson. During an interview on NPR on September 7, Lumumba never mentioned the issue of race and talked about the need for “proper investment made in the system from the state or federal resources” and his hopefulness after talking with Biden.2 In his campaigns he had talked of universal basic income, alternatives to policing, urban farms, and businesses cooperatives, of making Jackson a “radical city.” Although he has managed a few reforms like naming police in abuse cases and raising city worker pay by $2 an hour,5 this is hardly radical.
Racism is at the Root
In 1960 Jackson was 64% white and 36 % black. Then the federal government sent troops to Oxford to integrate the state university and whites departed for the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them. These racial demographics are typical for regions suffering the worst environmental catastrophes due either to infrastructure decay, climate change or chemical toxicity. Black children are five times as likely as white children to have lead poisoning. “Even wealthy black families are more likely to live next to a waste site than low income white families. Black Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than they produce. Latin Americans are exposed to 63% more pollution than they produce, and white Americans are exposed to 17% less pollution than they produce. As a result, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have elevated rates of cancer, asthma, and other ailments.”7
Some of the best known racist environmental disasters are Cancer Alley between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where petroleum factories that spew carcinogens into the lungs of the mostly black residents; Flint, Michigan where leaded water poisoned black residents for years; and the release of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) by Burlington Industries into the environment in Cheraw, SC near Charlotte in the 1970s, of which 58% black town was not informed for 50 years. Hurricane Florence in 2018 spread the contamination even further. The list is endless.
Despite this overwhelming evidence of racism, Dylan Bugden, an environmental sociologist at Washington State University, published a survey in Nature showing that most Americans blame poverty instead of structural racism. Dorceta Taylor, a professor at the Yale School of the Environment, has found that corporations that are fined for violating environmental laws are fined less in black and poor communities.8 Although President Biden has pledged that 40% of federal monies for climate and clean energy are for disadvantaged communities, race does not factor into the distribution plan.9
Meanwhile in Mississippi
Some emergency measures have been taken to aid the residents of Jackson. The National Guard has been mobilized to distribute water to residents, and FEMA will pay 75% of the local and state costs to respond to the crisis for the next 90 days. However, one of the two Mississippi Republican senators voted against Biden’s infrastructure bill as did all three Republican House members.1 In any case, it is not even possible to apply for these funds before October. $55 billion will eventually be dedicated to 10 million American households and 400,000 schools and child care centers that lack safe drinking water nationwide.10 However, if it is estimated that $1-2 billion are needed to revamp the water treatment plan for the small city of Jackson alone, clearly this amount is vastly insufficient. And when you compare it to the $813 billion budget for defense next year, the priorities of the rulers in Washington are clear.
Radical Organizing is Needed
The debacle in Jackson, Mississippi is perhaps most amazing because it received nationwide publicity. We live in a nation that routinely devalues and discards the lives of blacks, Latins, immigrants and Native Americans, relying on racism to diminish the concern of white workers. Of course, poor whites are also poor, suffering the ravages of hunger, substandard housing, healthcare, and education in even greater numbers if to a lesser degree than non-white workers. The chasms sown between the most oppressed and the slightly less oppressed are so profound, so ingrained since our nation’s legacy of white settlement and slavery, that the capitalists who profit from workers divided keep laughing all the way to the bank.
There is a history of fighting back against environmental injustice in the US. In the 1980s, the United Church of Christ organized demonstrations of hundreds against PCB dumping in North Carolina, and their activism continues.11 Dr. Robert Dullard, Director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University has written many books on the topic as his center leads struggles for justice. There are many other activist organizations listed on their website.12 And we all know of the struggle in Flint.
But for sure, we cannot solve the disparities in American life or the massive taking of life these disparities engender by electing black or progressive or “radical” politicians who make themselves part of the capitalist system. Profits, the measure of capitalist success, come from minimizing wages and the expenses of social benefits. As long as there are enough workers in working conditions to do the job and man the military, there is no incentive to go further. The only other variable is the degree to which workers are organized to demand more. We need to see marches, strikes and outreach among workers across racial and geographic lines to demand safe water and all the things we need and deserve for a decent life – excellent health care, education, housing and a safe environment. In fact, to win these we will ultimately have to change the whole system, from capitalism to one run by and for working people.