Elections in the US: Drinking water, a new front in the fight for civil rights in the US | International
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The sinister hooded robe of a Ku Klux Klan member illustrates the crimes, abuses and segregation of black Mississippians at the Jackson Civil Rights Museum. Soul music plays, but when sensors detect the passage of the visitor they throw racist insults at him to raise awareness about the treatment given to African-Americans. The exhibit also recalls how the unpunished torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 for whistling at a white woman (which a movie has just been released about) fueled the fight for civil rights. The battle for equality is not over and Jackson has a new front, which the museum has not yet covered: drinking water.
The capital of Mississippi, with some 150,000 inhabitants, with more than 80% black population and 25% poor, lacks a minimally reliable running water service, something that seems incredible in a large city of the first world power. Jackson’s water crisis is not new, but it was shown in all its harshness last August, when rains caused a breakdown in the old pumping and channeling system and left almost the entire city without supply for days. “It was a nightmare,” says a 19-year-old college student in Jackson. The inhabitants of the only large city in the state could not bathe, flush the chain, wash, cook or drink without provisioning themselves. When the water came back, it came out brown. For weeks, the notice was maintained not to consume tap water without first boiling it, which is already common in the city.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, declared a “disaster and extreme danger to the safety of persons and property.” The city’s mayor, Democrat Chokwe Antar Lumumba, was more emphatic: “We are in a constant state of emergency.” Mayor and governor are at odds politically and blame each other for the situation.
Jackson doesn’t have a drought problem. On the contrary, it has plenty of water. The Barnett reservoir, which occupies more than 13,000 hectares, looked to overflow this Tuesday north of the city. The Pearl River borders the urban center. What Jackson does not achieve is to get the water in conditions to its citizens. Some pipes are more than 100 years old, and the investment shortfall extends to sewage and water treatment plants. The problem illustrates how much of America’s infrastructure has become obsolete.
Priscilla Sterling is a professor at the Murrah Institute in Jackson. She lives with her mother, her stepfather, her 24-year-old daughter, and her six-year-old grandson. In her house they drank tap water, brushed their teeth with it and used it for cooking. Now, Ella Sterling says her children have been diagnosed with lead poisoning. She suffers from migraines. Her 24-year-old daughter has a learning disability and recurrent yeast infections. The whole family has experienced frequent episodes of unexplained itching. Priscilla is one of the people promoting a class action lawsuit against authorities and contractors. “The city of Jackson’s water supply has been neglected for decades,” her attorneys say. “Even before the supply failed, Jackson’s water was unfit for human consumption due to high levels of lead and other contaminants,” they add.
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For its part, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has opened a civil rights investigation at the request of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organization denounces that state authorities “have discriminated against the majority black population of the city of Jackson on the basis of race in their financing of infrastructure and water treatment programs and activities.” “Water is a human right, but for many Jackson families, regular access to clean water is out of reach,” the NAACP says.
The history professor at Jackson State University, Robert Puckett, explains that the root of the Jackson water crisis dates back to 1970, when the courts finally forced – in 1954 the Supreme Court had already ruled in this regard – to stop to segregate children in schools. “In Mississippi that meant a lot of white parents pulling their kids out of public schools, about 10,000 kids in the Jackson school district.” Most of them ended up in private schools promoted by white supremacists or in public schools in suburban suburbs, in school districts where almost all whites lived.
This movement of migration to the outskirts caused political, economic, business and religious leaders to leave Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, and to disregard the city and its infrastructure. Jackson thus lost its main contributors and entered into a vicious circle that has subsequently led to the migration of the most affluent black families to these residential areas, further draining the city’s resources. The majority of Jackson’s population was white in 1970. Today it is more than 80% African American and only 15% white. In that 15% is Puckett, who notes: “It is not surprising that the increasingly black nature of Jackson has generated an increasingly hostile attitude from white state leaders.”
“White wealth is in the suburbs and in Jackson, the black capital, you find extreme poverty,” adds Puckett. A few miles from downtown Jackson, in neighborhoods like Madison, Clinton and Ridgeland, the service works perfectly. The contrast is brutal in areas where it is enough to cross the boundary line of the city to go from one universe to another.
The scope of the water crisis goes far beyond not being able to shower or flush the toilet. The breakfast and lunch provided by schools is vital for many poor children, so when they have to teach remotely it creates collateral damage. There are companies that close (restaurants, hotels, laundries, hairdressers…) and people who lose their jobs, in another vicious circle. In the University’s own hairdressing salon, the person in charge admits that they had to close for several days due to lack of water. Frid, on the other hand, has had more work than usual. He is employed by a company that distributes bottled water and sells filtering and purification systems. “Jackson’s water is normally of poor quality, but what has been very hard for families is going completely without water,” he says after a stop on his route.
Puckett believes the state governor’s contempt for the city is evident (“As always, it’s a great day not to be in Jackson,” he said recently at an event in Hattiesburg). And, in addition, he considers that it is a deliberate strategy: “Our governor is using it as a war cry. I think he helps him politically with his conservative white voter base.” Governor elections will be next year. On November 8, Mississippi elects four seats in the House of Representatives, but all the pools point to the Republicans keeping their three districts and the Democrats keeping one. In many states, this dichotomy between a Republican governor elected with the support of rural areas and wealthy residential areas is repeated, which financially and regulatoryly punishes the large cities governed by Democrats (many of them with a high percentage of black population).
Extreme drought and lead
Although Jackson is unique, water problems are not unique to the Mississippi capital. In the western states, the problem is the extreme drought that they have suffered for years. To the east, Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, suffered a serious lead contamination crisis a few years ago. The EPA estimates that there are between 6 and 10 million lead pipes in America’s cities and towns, many of them in African-American and Indian communities and in low-income neighborhoods. The Government of Joe Biden has included 50,000 million dollars [unos 49.850 millones de euros] in its infrastructure law to finance investments in improving the quality of the resource, of which more than 20,000 million are intended to make tap water safe and drinkable. Your goal is to remove all lead pipes.
In addition to the supply and quality of water, the infrastructure law signed by Biden a year ago plans to mobilize more than a trillion dollars in investments in roads, bridges, airports, railways, networks and other infrastructure. He received not only Democratic support, but also that of 19 of the 50 Republican senators and 13 of his more than 200 members of the House of Representatives, much to the chagrin of Donald Trump. Staunch Trumpist Marjorie Taylor Greene called them traitors and tweeted their names and office numbers to get Republican voters to complain.
Many Republicans have called the Bipartisan Infrastructure program “socialist.” Then they asked for money from it.
You can’t make this stuff up. pic.twitter.com/yQVHlM3vYw
—Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) October 7, 2022
The vast majority of Republican congressmen opposed the law, which seeks to renovate an old and outdated infrastructure park. Many Republicans called Biden’s infrastructure plan “socialism.” The president himself, in a recent act, took revenge on them because many of those who criticized the plan later ended up asking for money from it. “I didn’t know there were so many Socialist Republicans,” he scoffed.
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