President Joe Biden recently met with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) to try to hash together a deal on financing a massive rebuild of the nation’s ailing infrastructure, but time is running out for Biden and Democrats to overcome Republican efforts to tank a bipartisan deal.
Critics say the GOP is hoping to sink the agreement because an outpouring of money to repair infrastructure and prepare the nation for inevitable climate change havoc would look good on the Democratic president and make Republican’s efforts to retake the House and Senate during the midterms more difficult. The GOP’s party-over-country short-sightedness is beginning to hit hard at impoverished, majority-Black communities that are unprepared to deal with the impending issue of climate change, however.
An Unequal Burden
“The consequences of climate events are not borne equally,” according to a Columbia University report on environmental preparedness. Another report, released last year by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, was even more specific, saying “larger, often better-resourced communities have created climate offices and programs, while response has lagged in smaller or poorer communities that are often more dependent on county- or state-level programs and expertise.”
The larger assessment is that while nobody on Earth is truly prepared for incoming climactic changes, communities with less money and few resources are staggeringly unprepared for the inevitable calamity. Many majority-Black U.S. cities fall disproportionately into this category. This has everything to do with racism.
Black cities like Jackson, Mississippi and Flint, Michigan have been losing both population and revenue to parasite suburbs for decades. Jackson’s own leech communities in Madison and Rankin Counties launched a concerted effort to suck away middle-class whites, making little effort to disguise their motives. One suburban neighborhood developer posted a billboard on a major Jackson highway, urging drivers to “get out while you still can,” until Jackson’s mayor demanded its removal. This kind of pernicious poaching of residents inevitably drained the city of resources.
What was left are falling home prices that generate little tax revenue and declining sales taxes as business close and follow wealthier shoppers over the county line. At the same time, Jackson’s current mayor claims city residents are now facing up to $2 billion in needed repairs and upgrades, which would require a one-time payment of about $12,500 from every one of the city’s 160,000 residents to finance. The possibility of city residents managing that anytime soon is laughable. The Census income map below makes clear how meticulously the hungry suburbs have targeted certain income classes above others, up to the point of nearly depleting the central region of its entire middle-class.
Racism Makes Climate Change Even Worse
This ill-timed caving of infrastructure becomes an even more serious problem when mixed with the sci-fi threat of climate change. Earlier this year the northern hemisphere’s polar vortex wobbled off its arctic center and dipped down deep into the U.S. South, sending ice storms through cold-sensitive Mississippi and Texas. Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann said freak storms like this will likely become more commonplace as the Earth’s weakened polar vortex lurches around like a bleeding shooting victim staggering toward death.
The storm did double damage to the aging city of Jackson. Many water pipes within the city are decades overdue for replacement, with some more than 70 years old. Most of these pipes are made of cast iron, and they don’t stretch when the water inside them freezes and expands. This delivered a rash of burst pipes throughout the city of Jackson, reducing water pressure and completely cutting off water in some places, particularly in the southern and western portions of the city. In some spots, residents spent four weeks without water. One month later, the city remained under a boil-water notice due to low pressure levels and storm-damage related water impurity.
South Jackson resident Erika Trinidad, her husband and their two children had no water for nine days. This created a catalogue of logistical and financial problems for the Trinidad family.
“Paying $11 for showers at a truck stop in the next town for a family of four; driving all over town to get water from friends to flush toilets; going out to eat in the next town over; the struggle with buying paper goods and all the processed food. And then going to bed late after all that and then having to wake up earlier,” Mrs. Trinidad told The Lighthouse.
Blaming Everything but the Problem
White politicians outside the city were quick to wag their fingers at residents’ misfortune, even as their own bedroom communities spent decades draining the city of money that could have gone to water upgrades.
“You remember during Kane Ditto’s administration? He did repair work on water and sewer. So, what happened since then?” demanded Mississippi Senate leader and Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann, who is white.
The city of Jackson is 82 percent Black, with majority Black leadership. Ditto was the city’s last white Mayor, so the racism of claiming the city’s leadership had dropped the ball in the years since his mayorship was not lost on the population. Jackson resident Brad Franklin said the tone-deaf ignorance of Hosemann’s statement was loud and clear.
“I’m not surprised he said that. It’s pretty much the same rhetoric you’ve heard from white officials over the years,” said Franklin. “The Blacker that Jackson has gotten the louder that rhetoric has become. It wasn’t anything new to me.”
The Real Problem: Urban Divestment through School Segregation
Franklin added that he found Hosemann’s implication that Black politicians and Black people are too incompetent to run a city particularly galling considering the racist history behind the deterioration of cities like Jackson. Politicians would like you to think places like Detroit have wanton Black incompetence to blame for decline, but the cause most often lies with race-based school segregation, and the U.S. Supreme Court led the way. School district lines became an instrument for segregation in the landmark 1974 case Milliken v. Bradley. In a tragic reversal, the court determined that arbitrary school district borders could be used to segregate Black students from white students, despite court members acknowledging the clear inequalities of such a system. Justice Thurgood Marshall, speaking in dissent, warned that the majority’s decision perpetuated de facto segregation by not pushing white suburbs to share their schools with Black students.
By refusing to mandate integration across these school boundaries, judges gave further incentive to middle-class white families to move their children a few miles away to more expensive districts. Meanwhile, impoverished families (whose real estate options were limited by the amount of money they could dedicate to rent or mortgage) remained trapped in districts with lower real estate values. Segregation, while no longer overtly legal, had found an economic loophole. From there, Milliken v. Bradley hollowed out majority-Black cities like Detroit and Jackson through a kind of induced out-migration as wealthy parents moved away and took school districts’ revenue with them. The school deterioration this triggered pushed more reluctant, lower-income parents to contribute to the decline by pressuring them to also relocate to districts with more educational opportunity, even though they could not easily afford the move.
Since then, urban planners like John Mogk have stated that school segregation has contributed more to strangling Detroit than the infamous race riots of 1967.
“Everybody thinks that it was the riots that caused the white families to leave. Some people were leaving at that time but, really, it was after Milliken that you saw a mass flight to the suburbs,” Mogk stated. “If the case had gone the other way, it is likely that Detroit would not have experienced the steep decline in its tax base that has occurred since then.”
Blaming Black Debt
So goes Detroit, so goes Flint—and so also goes Jackson, and many other minority-majority municipalities. Despite this obvious fact, Mississippi’s indifferent representatives persist in piling on the contempt. When desperate Jackson officials appealed to the state for help with the freak freeze of ‘21 (which killed roughly 100 Texans), Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves instead questioned the city’s ability to adequately charge and collect on citizens’ water bills.
“I do think it’s really important that the City of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money,” Reeves told reporters, without even checking to see if they already had.
Charging people more for their bills is neither the issue or the solution in this case. The city of Jackson has engaged in a recent surge of prosecutions and service disconnects against residents who have ducked their water bills. But the enforcement tools in the city’s arsenal are limited. Other municipalities can pull meters from the homes of bill cheats or pour cement into meter holes and then charge delinquents to rebuild the meter. But many of the “cheats” in the city of Jackson are impoverished senior citizens or their descendants, who are often on fixed incomes. Others are single mothers. Wide-scale water shut offs would be a public relations nightmare of Detroit proportions.
It’s not like city residents haven’t been paying their fair share to cover infrastructure maintenance, according to former mayor Harvey Johnson, Jr., who commissioned a master plan in 1997 and a 2010 follow-up report on financing water and sewer upgrades.
“Water service in the city is paid for with user fees, but city demographics revealed a high poverty rate,” Johnson told Lighthouse. “We’d already increased water rates by 100 percent, but there’s only so much users could bear, especially high-poverty residents.”
The Real Problem: Cutting Corners in Black Neighborhoods’ Infrastructure
The issue was not just that pipes were old and decaying, either. It turned out that racist, white administrations operating the city for most of its 200-year history had knowingly installed inadequate water lines in certain parts of the city to save money. You can guess where they put them.
“You can’t run a hydrant with a two-inch water main. It needs to be at least six inches, preferably eight. … But it was cheaper to put small lines in, and that’s what they did,” Johnson said. “If you looked where those lines are, they were in older parts of the city and in parts of the city where you have minority and Black residents. It was almost traditional to put these undersized lines into the lower income Black areas, and that’s where you find most of them.”
Despite the information Hosemann and Reeves are peddling, Black mayors like Johnson invested huge sums of money on treatment plants, water storage and line replacement. Johnson determined that he needed $500 million just to get the city’s sewage treatment plant in accord with federal pollution standards. But with the city facing falling revenue due to suburban cannibalizing, he turned to federal sources. The city nabbed more than $8 million in federal grants between 1997 and 2010, according to Johnson, and it had an effective congressional lobbyist who brought in more than $100 million for city projects and repairs. That kind of money isn’t possible today, however.
When The Great Society Fades
“Pork barrel” spending is an ugly word in politics. It is the practice of allowing members of Congress to direct spending for certain programs or projects in their own districts while circumventing the normal appropriations process. Congress banned these kinds of earmarks in 2011, after the process was demonized following the infamous $230 million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. Even former President Barack Obama campaigned against earmarks in 2008. But despite its wasteful sound many of those earmarks actually went to useful projects, including infrastructure repair and development in majority-Black cities like Jackson. When the laws changed in 2011, many of these same municipalities had to go it alone.
“It hurt us, from that standpoint, because we had good people in very good positions, with (U.S.) Senators (Trent) Lott and (Thad) Cochran and of course Congressman (Bennie) Thompson. So, we were able to fare pretty good up until then,” Johnson said.
Jackson also benefited from various “Great Society” initiatives, devised by President Lyndon B. Johnson to reduce poverty and crime and abolish inequality. In the 1980s and 1990s, these programs allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to provide a 75 percent grant to cities to fund sewer improvements. If the municipality was willing to implement certain “alternative technologies” that were better for the environment, they could even qualify for 85 percent federal support. The money was a lifeline to the city of Jackson and many smaller towns looking to upgrade their infrastructure. But these programs faded throughout the 1990s, with the feds reducing their grant to 50 percent and then eventually giving what was left to the state to delve out in loans.
The loans still exist today, but they are a limited block of money over which cities must compete. If they win, the loans are charged against their municipal tax revenue—and don’t think for a minute the state doesn’t charge cities interest on those loans. It may be federal money but Johnson said the state of Mississippi still gets to generate revenue off it. Apparently, this is all very much legal.
No Help from the Mississippi Legislature or Jackson’s Neighbors
To add further insult, the Mississippi legislature has rarely intervened on the city’s behalf. Back in 2010, an ice storm similar to the one that hit the city in 2021 took out the water system that served the Capitol. That year, legislators gave the city a measly $6 million loan to overhaul a nearly $1 billion problem, but that was only because those same legislators had to resort to the indignity of portable toilets that year.
The legislative stinginess is even more infuriating when you consider how the state government itself is a kind of financial drain on the city. While government employees working at state and county buildings help generate city revenue by buying lunch downtown, the buildings they work in do not pay the city of Jackson occupancy taxes, not like a typical Jackson homeowner. When you combine all the government-occupied property with downtown church property (because churches also don’t pay taxes) and the graveyards (because neither do corpses) Jackson’s untaxed property comprises roughly half of all property in the downtown area. This is an issue in many other capital cities as well, but Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba told reporters that other capital cities get payment in lieu of taxes. Jackson does not.
The parasite communities, meanwhile, continue to gnaw at Jackson’s revenue streams. The West Rankin Utility Authority, serving the sprawl communities of Flowood, Pearl, and Richland, among others, recently pulled out of its long-term agreement with the city of Jackson to process its sewage. That caused a big problem because Jackson’s treatment plant was designed to carry a high load, with roughly 40 percent of operations dedicated to customers outside the city. When Rankin walked away from its half of the agreement it left a very large and expensive plant to be managed by the city’s declining population.
By the year 2021, the Great Theft by suburbs and surrounding communities is nearly complete, and the remaining Jackson population can no longer finance significant infrastructure repairs by itself. But there is no more room for surly, mean-spirited half-measures in this changing environment.
“This is not an episodic problem. We’ve got to do something, but that ‘something’ needs to happen on a continual basis,” Johnson added. “… [I]t’s going to have to be recurrent, because taking all the resources and going just outside the city and then looking back and saying ‘why aren’t you guys doing anything?’ Well, you’ve done all you could to rob us of the resources we need.”
Reparations and Climate Preparedness
This brings us back to the greater national debate on reparations for slavery and how Biden’s massive U.S. infrastructure plan could finally begin the process of municipal recovery. Leaders are rightfully caught up in a discussion over how best to enact reparations for countless generations of slavery and economic destruction of Black people. The Brookings Institute pointed out in a 2020 report that the nation defied its own 200-year-old claim of “equal opportunity for hard work” by denying Black people countless wealth-building opportunities.
Even after finally making it illegal to work Black Americans without pay, racist U.S. laws and practices continued to deny Black families the ability to build wealth by removing the promise of equal pay, home-ownership and opportunities. Despicable tactics, including real estate redlining and denying Black people Social Security and Black veterans their military benefits were effective enough to decimate African-American wealth to the point where “the average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family.”
The reparations debate today roils over what form reparations should take, be it monetary payments, fee waivers, tax benefits, settlements, scholarships or a combination of policies. While certainly not the end-all to the reparations question, helping to reinforce majority-Black communities against climate change could target at least one restorative effort inside a concentrated, under-served Black population. To further sweeten the deal, the nation already has a blueprint courtesy of Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, as well as a starting point with Biden’s ambitious infrastructure initiatives.
In addition to providing universal pre-K, affordable higher education and worker training targeting low-wage groups, the president’s plan includes money for the replacement of water pipes. This would not only include Flint, Michigan’s wildly dangerous lead water pipes but also Jackson’s failing pipes, which routinely become high-velocity water sprinklers when the weather changes.
Big Oil Bets Big on Denying Climate Change
Some Republicans complain that things like “pipes” shouldn’t be part of any infrastructure plan, however. In fact, Jackson’s own white U.S. senators and representatives oppose Biden’s plan, arguing that it would balloon the nation’s debt. It’s an odd position to take when your local representatives are having to resort to portable toilets, or your Texas power company is begging you to “unplug” in the middle of record heat to protect a straining power grid. Critics say this has plenty to do with bigger, more insidious forces pushing against climate mitigation.
“One of the greatest public relations campaigns ever in the history of humanity has been funded by the oil and gas industry and other major polluters to convince the American public that climate change is not real,” said Daniel Faber, senior research fellow for the Global Center for Climate Justice. “The oil and gas industry currently sits on $27 trillion in fossil fuel assets that have yet to be burned and the climate change crisis represents a threat to their business model.”
Stopping climate change or reducing it means keeping those assets in the ground, and that’s the last thing the oil lobby wants. But with more and more U.S. citizens cognizant of water breaks, power outages and rising sea levels, keeping climate mitigation and infrastructure plans out of Congress and off the news means buying an army of politicians to trample it. Faber says that’s basically what they’ve done.
“If you’re a (GOP) politician and you recognize that climate change is a threat to white working-class communities or communities of color you will be primaried. The oil and gas industry will put huge money into your primary and make sure that you will be defeated by a candidate who denies the threat. If you want to do something about climate change and its impact, you will be targeted in the primaries, without question, and they all know that,” Faber said.
This fear of being primaried by pro-oil industry puppets probably helps explain the inconsistency of GOP arguments against Biden’s infrastructure and Green New Deal Plan. Mississippi’s own U.S. Rep. Michael Guest claims to be “a fiscal conservative,” and he defends his opposition by proclaiming that he is “deeply concerned with the cost of the programs …” It does not matter that Guest supports a $2 trillion tax cut in 2017 that exploded the nation’s debt while giving generous tax cuts to the most wealthy. United States Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith similarly asked voters to question the wisdom of increasing taxes to pay for Biden’s infrastructure plan, even though the tax increases Biden proposes would primarily affect the nation’s most wealthy, and taxing the wealthy is incredibly, wildly, and insanely popular among voters.
National Sacrifice Zones
We can’t be surprised by lingering opposition, however, not when history shows that some politicians don’t hesitate to jettison Black communities for the right price. Consider the case for National Sacrifice Zones (NSZ). An NSZ is an area deemed unsafe for human habitation, but for decades city planners, developers and politicians have targeted them very specifically for a certain kind of population. Examples include industrial zones like Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s Cancer Alley, where chemical plants dump enough toxins to balloon residents’ cancer rates well beyond national averages. If you are Black, there’s a heightened chance the government or some developer has designated your home or community to be the best place for an increased cancer risk or some amplified chance of hazard.
Sacrifice zones are the meat and potatoes of U.S. industry, and they serve to warn us how future trends are going to go as a wobbling polar vortex and rising seas create a legion of new zones. You can expect, for example, poorer and Blacker communities to suffer first and worst. In fact, we’ve already seen examples of this in New Orleans’ lower 9th Ward, which is still struggling to recover 15 years after Hurricane Katrina.
Hoping We Can Build Back Better
Joan Fitzgerald is a professor of Urban and Public Policy at Northeastern University, in Boston. She focuses on urban climate action and she believes the American public is finally waking up to the real threat. She added that Biden’s plan for nationwide infrastructure investment would be a boon to struggling Black cities facing climate woes and believes the plan can pass thanks to wide popularity and the nation’s encroaching sense of urgency. Once the money starts flowing, she said, it will trigger a landslide of federally-subsidized construction.
“I always play the optimist, but I think what you’ll see from this infrastructure build out, is that when these cities and towns get these funds, people will realize what’s not to like about them and they’ll catch on,” Fitzgerald said.