How Jackson, Mississippi’s water crisis is a sign of larger racial inequities

Residents in Jackson, Mississippi have gone without safe drinking water for weeks after flooding and a failure at the city’s largest water treatment plant. While water pressure has been restored, videos show dirty water is still coming through faucets. Amna Nawaz spoke with Dr. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University about other majority Black and brown cities that face similar ongoing issues.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Residents of Jackson, Mississippi, have gone without safe drinking water for weeks after heavy rainfall caused a failure at the city's largest water treatment plant. While water pressure has been restored, the city still lacks clean water.

    Amna Nawaz has more about how that's affecting everyday life there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, Jackson's 150,000 residents were already under a boil water notice since July, when the Health Department found cloudy water that triggered health concerns.

    The August storms and flooding exacerbated the water crisis, one that continues to this day. This video taken on Friday shows brown tap water coming from Molly Minta's home. We spoke with Minta, a local reporter, and other Jackson residents earlier today.

    Molly Minta, Reporter, Mississippi Today in Partnership With Open Campus: It just feels like a complete mystery what actually caused the brown water coming out of my tap and who, as, like, a private citizen, I would appeal to get it fixed.

    In addition to all of this — all the mistrust, or, rather, I should say, lack of trust that people are feeling, just the fact that it feels impossible to ascertain why this is happening about something that it should be really easy to figure out.

  • Mikeyla Anderson, Jackson State University:

    When I first turned my shower on, and it turned brown. I kind of got a little bit scared, and I wanted to go home.

    We have to do extra steps and take extra precautions into brushing our teeth. And that's an everyday life thing. So it should be simple. But, for us, it's not simple at all. Personally, for college, though, it might get a little bit better, considering we have a water tower. But, for the city of Jackson as a whole, I don't really see it getting better.

    Ezra Brown, Owner, Soule Coffee and Bubble Tea: Even here in our cafe, we have had to close the restroom for a couple of days, because the pressure was so low, that we couldn't even flush the toilets.

    This is hard, because this isn't normal, and it shouldn't be normal. And I have heard that this has been going on for a while.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jackson's water crisis is in the headlines now. But other communities, notably majority Black and brown cities, face similar ongoing issues.

    Joining us now is Robert Bullard, distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and the director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.

    Professor, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for joining us.

    I just want to get your reaction to some of what we heard right there. What is it say to you that residents in a capital city in America for weeks have not had and still don't have clean tap water coming in their homes?

  • Robert Bullard, Texas Southern University:

    Well, what this says is that the infrastructure in many of our cities that have suffered from disinvestment over decades is now coming home, and that it's a result of just systemic flight of resources to outlying areas, at the expense of those who are living in our cities.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, today, we are focused on Jackson, Mississippi.

    People will remember, earlier this year, we were talking about Benton Harbor, Michigan. A few years ago, we were talking about Flint, Michigan, and their water crises.

    Are these one-off events, or do you see something larger? Are these indicative of a bigger problem?

  • Robert Bullard:

    It is indicative of a larger problem. And the problem is basically looking at which communities get resources for infrastructure and which ones get left behind.

    And when cities begin to transition, the demographic shift from predominantly white to predominantly Black or brown, you start to see problems occurring in terms of getting state funding to support infrastructure. And you can see that direct line with not only infrastructure when it comes to water.

    You can see schools when the demographics of schools change. You start to see the schools basically decline in terms of lower tax dollars when it comes to housing and other kinds of infrastructure, which means that we have to make sure that dollars flow in a way that's not based on race or geography.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, when we — people hear the phrase environmental racism, is this what we're talking about?

  • Robert Bullard:

    We're talking about environmental racism.

    We're talking about infrastructure apartheid. We're talking about which communities get left out, left behind. And when you have a blue — a red state and with blue cities, it's more difficult for those cities to get the resources from the state.

    It's not just Jackson. It's Texas and other Southern states, specifically when you start seeing that flight of white people from the city, but you also see that flight of dollars, infrastructure dollars, roads, bridges, dams, water systems, schools. You start — you can name it.

    Mississippi is rated a D-minus when it comes to infrastructure. The U.S. as a whole is a C-minus. So when you talk about water, water is something you can't live without. And you would hope that a city and state could work together to ensure that its citizens have clean water and other kinds of safe — safe issues that make for quality of life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about some of those funds then, because there are some federal funds folks are pointing to that say they — this could help.

    The state — the state of Mississippi will get about $429 million dollars from the bipartisan Infrastructure Act. That's just to fix their water and sewage systems. And even though Republicans voted against it, the city of Jackson is slated to get about $25 million from the American Rescue Plan of last year.

    What kind of a difference can those kinds of funds make to keep this from happening again?

  • Robert Bullard:

    Well, I think, any time we can invest in infrastructure and have funds flow to need, like the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, that money needs to go directly to the city and, in some cases, county.

    When it goes to the state, there's a roadblock. And so I think it's important that we somehow dismantle those artificial barriers that keep funds from going to those needed cities.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What kind of a roadblock? What are we talking about there?

  • Robert Bullard:

    Well, it's racial. It's political. It's historical.

    And it's very powerful when it comes to having a predominantly Black city, 80 percent black, trying to get funds from a state that somehow doesn't see it as important. Now, that's a roadblock. That's a barrier. And race is still — if you look at zip codes, still the most potent factor that determines where money flows.

    And it's pretty obvious that infrastructure dollars over these decades have not flowed into Jackson. And that's a major issue today. But it just didn't happen in the last year. It happened over decades.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor, these funds could take many months to make their way into communities. Projects will take a long time to make any kind of lasting change.

    What about in the short term or the medium term? What can be done to help people in Jackson?

  • Robert Bullard:

    The issue of fast-tracking water systems and getting the kinds of treatment facilities online quickly with the urgency of now, I don't think we should go through the usual process.

    This is an emergency. And I think we're talking about not just water. We're talking about health. We're talking about people's lives. And so it needs to be treated with that sense of urgency, and not allow red tape or politics or any kind of artificial barriers to stop this from being fast-tracked.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Professor Robert Bullard of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice, joining us tonight.

    Thank you very much.

  • Robert Bullard:

    Thank you.

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