The water crisis in Jackson, Miss., is not just the story of a city’s aging water-treatment system affected by recent severe weather. The roots of this crisis run far deeper. The story of Jackson’s water crisis is a story of white state leadership, a Black-led capital city, and ordinary inequality and racism.
I am a scholar of race and inequality, and my first inquiries into these subjects began during childhood. Growing up in Jackson in the late 1980s and early ’90s, race and racism were often discussed in terms of interpersonal relationships. Some in our generation were heralded and celebrated because we may have attended slightly racially diverse schools or played on racially mixed T-ball teams. This type of progress, it seemed, meant that racism was over.
At Boyd Elementary School, I was featured in a local newspaper story and on the cover of public-school brochures that emphasized how well Black and white students learned together. I stayed in Jackson for college where I attended Millsaps College, a majority-white college then, and in 2007, I was named homecoming queen—at that time, only the second Black homecoming queen in my school’s then 117-year history.
Just like those racially mixed T-ball teams, many white people around me gleefully lauded this accomplishment as proof of racism’s retreat to a realm of rusted relics. Such false celebrations and counterfeit understandings of racism continue to mask its pernicious nature.
Racism is not a thing of the past. It is ongoing, active and present. Racism is about hierarchy. Racism is about power.
Prolonged Efforts to Delegitimize Black Leadership
I was a junior in high school when I became active in a state-wide youth law-making program. Participants would draft their own legislation about any topic during a mock legislative session held at the Capitol. Mississippi’s population is nearly 40% Black, but of the 75 to 100 attendees, I was maybe one of 10 Black students—and often one of a few from Jackson Public Schools.
On Sept. 14, 1964, an African American first grader clutches his mother’s hand as he arrives for the first day of school at
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