Talking Reparations Also Means Talking Climate Preparedness
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