Some commentators see environmental racism in the failure of the long-neglected water system of Jackson, a majority Black city in a state that has historically been run by white conservatives.

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Jackson is Mississippi’s largest city, with over 160,000 residents. As of Monday, almost all of those residents are without safe drinking water. And neither city nor state officials know when the water will be drinkable again. 

The issues with Jackson’s water system were caused by river flooding, which caused critical damage to the city’s main water treatment facility, the O.B. Curtis plant.

Mississippi governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency late Monday:

We do not have reliable running water at scale. It means the city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets and to meet other critical needs. Please stay safe. Do not drink the water. In too many cases, it is raw water from the reservoir being pushed through the pipes. Be smart, protect yourself, protect your family.

Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney said Jackson residents need to conserve their water resources. Water must be boiled before using it to drink, cook, or brush teeth. 

Jackson’s water system has had significant problems long before the river flooding. In July of this year, the city was under a boil water notice due to quality issues. In February of 2021, a winter storm led Jackson’s water system to shut down, keeping thousands of residents without access to water during the pandemic.  

The state has started to develop plans to distribute water and is preparing for the city to be without water access for an extended period of time. 

Jackson is a majority Black city in a state that has historically been run by white conservatives. Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, has previously said that the city’s water system faced neglect and lack of investment from the state. Others have associated the state’s lack of investment in a city with a legacy of racism.

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.

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