David Marshall: A Blue city in a Red state

by David W. Marshall

Through legislation and the courts, any law can be changed at any given time—but changing laws doesn’t guarantee that a person’s heart will change with it. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided on the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, it ruled in favor of maintaining separate areas for Blacks and Whites as long as they were equal. It was a landmark decision that opened the door to Jim Crow segregation laws throughout the South, and in many ways, it erased some of the positive advancements Blacks achieved during the Reconstruction Era.

Even though the Supreme Court decision was a turning point giving states the legal permission to implement a “separate but equal” doctrine, the goal of the South was never about true equality or being equal. The objective was racial separation, racial superiority, and an “us against them” approach to deepen the division and increase the advantage. Jim Crow segregation laws existed for 58 years until the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregation violated rights granted by the Constitution. The court concluded that in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Though the case outlawed racial separation only in public schools, segregation of any kind was no longer considered lawful. Unfortunately, in the hearts of men and women, unwritten traditions have a way of overriding written laws. In too many cases, a person’s motivation comes from the “separate and unequal” traditions passed down from generation to generation. These traditions, as cruel as they may be at times, are in plain view today in Jackson, Mississippi.

Jackson is not just any city in the state of Mississippi; it is the largest city in the state while also serving as the seat of state government. Despite these significant distinctions, Jackson finds itself in a political trap by being a blue city in a red state. In many ways, Jackson is no different from other Southern cities faced with court-ordered integration of the public schools along with its subsequent White flight. The population, which soared to over 200,000, has now dropped to approximately 150,000 after being in decline for more than 40 years. When White residents decided to flee the city for neighboring suburbs, their love for the city of Jackson was left behind. Today, Jackson is not only a blue city, it is an 82 percent Black city with 25 percent of its residents living in poverty. The goal of racial separation was achieved, and along with the White flight, there was lasting damage to the city’s tax base. With the continuing loss of residents, home values plummeted, driving down tax revenues and requiring increases in tax rates.

Businesses that could provide the city with a stable tax base also chose to follow residents in relocating to areas with lower tax rates, newer infrastructure, and whiter populations. Those who chose to neglect and ignore Jackson because of the red/blue, White/Black, or the urban/rural divide may never realize that holding back and disinvesting in Jackson will also hold back the state. Mississippi’s rural lawmakers in the Republican-dominated state legislature are following the long tradition of “separate and unequal” by intentionally failing to provide the majority-Democrat city with the adequate funding and resources needed to address its aging infrastructure. The practice of “separate and unequal” will cause one to watch the suffering and misery of people of color without being moved by it. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and Republican lawmakers have repeatedly killed efforts by the city to fund essential water treatment upgrades adequately. State lawmakers previously denied allowing the city to raise infrastructure funds through a sales tax increase. A 2021 bill that would have authorized a bond issuance to assist Jackson with making repairs and improvements to water and sewer systems died in the Republican-controlled state House Ways and Means committee. In 2021, when approximately 40,000 Jackson residents went weeks without running water, Reeves told city leaders that they needed to do a better job “collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.”

While water is a basic necessity of life, to have it denied by allowing critical systems to deteriorate is cruel and inhumane. Last week, in part because of severe flooding, Jackson’s treatment plant ultimately failed, leaving thousands of city residents without water to drink, bathe, or even flush toilets. “Ideally, infrastructure serves as a shared foundation for economic, environmental and public health between different neighborhoods and municipalities,” scholars at the Brookings Institute wrote in March 2021, after Jackson faced another severe water shortage.

“However, infrastructure is often poorly maintained or intentionally overlooked in particular places, leading to a lack of access, affordability, and safety for many communities of color.” The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, signed into law by President Biden, was designed to rebuild dilapidated water and other essential systems throughout the nation. Like Flint, Michigan, the ongoing water crisis was ignored by a Republican-controlled state government that didn’t rightfully respond until circumstances reached the point of catastrophe. The residents of Flint and Jackson deserve much better. With the national spotlight now being placed on Jackson, Gov. Reeves stated, “But it is incredibly important that the city of Jackson improves, gets better, is safer for individuals to live there because as a state we need our capital city to thrive.” Let’s hope the governor’s words are sincere and backed by solid long-term actions where Republican state lawmakers can work together with local officials. Mainly for the sake of current Jackson residents who have suffered enough and for future generations who will look back at this moment and view it as a missed opportunity.

(David W. Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization, TRB: The Reconciled Body, and author of the book God Bless Our Divided America. He can be reached at www.davidwmarshallauthor.com.)

 

 

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