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Mississippi Climate Injustice

Jackson Mississippi is in a state of emergency due to a water shortage. More than a trillion dollars needs to be invested in infrastructure by the end of this decade, or communities like Jackson won’t have the resiliency to deal with the effects of climate change.

According to Dr. Mel Michelle Lewis the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice of American Rivers a conservation organization since 1973. Residents of Jackson, Mississippi, are without clean drinking water after heavy rain caused the Pearl River to crest just below the major flood stage this week. A major pump at the city’s main water treatment facility was damaged, but the city's mayor says the current water crisis is a result of years-long issues.

The O.B. Curtis Water Treatment plant was pushed to failure after the city experienced a high level of flooding due to heavy rainfall over the last week — following nearly 30 days of an ongoing ‘boil water’ advisory that has become common in Jackson. Its complete failure has left the city without enough safe water for people to use. The water crisis unfolding in Jackson, Mississippi, was decades in the making: the culmination of crumbling infrastructure, systemic racism and more extreme weather caused by man made climate change. According to Bloomberg magazine “... climate change is making precipitation events more intense, and therefore more likely to overwhelm strained systems. Lower-income and minority communities such as Jackson — which is 82% Black and where a quarter of residents live in poverty.”

While the situation in Jackson is acute, its problems aren’t unique. “Jackson quickly has become symbolic of everything that we’re talking about when we talk about environmental and climate injustices,” said Katherine Egland, who serves on the board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but “this is happening all over the nation.” The storms in the Midwest and South – and the flooding in Mississippi – come amid rising concerns in the US and around the world over the impact of severe weather that scientists blame on climate change. While the floodwaters let the system tip over, experts say underinvestment in Jackson's infrastructure – a city that's majority Black – is to blame. Proclaims a recent article in USA Today.

This is on top of the less evident threats like rising sea levels and contaminated water supplies with saltwater, or droughts that dissipate reservoirs and water resources like the Colorado River that supplies water to 44 million people. This is the perfect example of structural racism. Not just in the physical infrastructure and schools, but in the emergency statement by the Governor. No proposals or ideas to help or mitigate the situation were offered after a year of studying the problem, just telling them not to drink the water. If this was impacting upscale white neighborhoods, it is certain there would be water mediation pumps and equipment as well as legislation to address the problem. Many believe the city it’s Mayor and the people should sue, maybe even press a civil rights case, since this situation began and is perpetuated through racial discrimination. Climate justice “insists on a shift from a discourse on greenhouse gases and melting ice caps into a civil rights movement with the people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts at its heart,” said climate activist Mary Robinson. One thing is clear in Mississippi. Incompetence, corruption and racism join hands to demonstrate the reality of the systemic racism many have spent many years claiming doesn't exist. Racial division has been the Hallmark of Mississippi legislation but ironically if blacks leave the state it would become a wasteland.

Mississippi Communities of color aren’t suffering by chance, they say. Rather, these conditions are the result of decades of indifference from people in power. According to the Environmental Protection Agency black communities face dangerously high levels of pollution. African Americans are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute water and air and erode quality of life. Because of this, more than half of the 9 million people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color, and black Americans are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than their white counterparts. In fact according to Quartz an environmental impact website “where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, levee-protecting wetlands have been damaged by decades of oil and gas development, which has laced the area with canals for pipelines. Residents are fighting to get industry to pay for the damage and restore the wetlands.”

Many states prevent those once convicted of a felony from voting but one stands out for the scale and complexity of its law. Mississippi! More than 235,000 people in the state can’t vote because of a felony conviction, according to an estimate by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice non-profit organization. That’s more than 10% of the voting age population, and nearly 16% of Black people of voting age can’t vote because of a felony conviction.

The Guardian covered the roots of the systemic racism embedded in this law. In 1890, delegates at the state’s constitutional convention picked a handful of crimes that would cause someone to lose their right to vote forever. At first glance, that list appears random – bribery, burglary, theft, arson, perjury, forgery, embezzlement and bigamy were all included. Murder and rape were not.

Shortly after the law was established the Mississippi supreme court explained that the delegates deliberately chose crimes they thought Black people were more likely to commit. It was part of a broader scheme to block Black people from voting after the passage of the 15th amendment, which says no citizen can be denied the right to vote based on their race.

There is a process today in Mississippi for people convicted of felonies to get their voting rights back, but it’s nearly impossible to navigate. Someone with a disqualifying felony must first convince a lawmaker to introduce an individualized bill on their behalf to regain suffrage. Both chambers of the Mississippi legislature must approve it by a two-thirds majority, and then the governor must approve it. On average, just seven people get their voting rights back per year. Ironically now that the opioid epidemic has hit the Caucasian population of Mississippi so hard the law is disenfranchising white people more than any other demographic. Because of this Mississippi is consistently one of the poorest States in the USA the poorest black person in Atlanta or Mexican in Los Angeles has a better quality of life and access to opportunity than the majority of white Mississippians!


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