Avoiding the tap water in Jackson is a longtime way of life Residents accuse the largely white state government of neglecting the needs of a city that's 82% Black. White flight in the 1970s devastated the tax base, posing a major challenge to any solution.

Avoiding the tap water in Jackson, Miss., has been a way of life for decades

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The city of Jackson, Miss., has restored water pressure to most residents, but it's still not clear whether that water is safe to drink. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has this report on the challenges to reaching a lasting solution.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: The same day that 600 National Guard members deployed around the city to distribute water to tens of thousands of people, one steady line of cars flowed instead through a quiet residential neighborhood.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Builder (ph) car coming. All the way down.

LUDDEN: Six months ago, the Sykes Community Center got a filter to purify water for local residents to pick up. Jason Page, a youth mentor with the group Strong Arms, helps direct traffic.

JASON PAGE: We just don't do it periodically. We do it every single day. If someone has jugs or something they can put water in, that filter that we have in there - it cleans the water because Jackson water has been messed up for a while now.

LUDDEN: A long while. Halima Olufemi is 45, an activist with the People's Advocacy Institute, and grew up in Jackson.

HALIMA OLUFEMI: My big momma and my JoJo - these are my great-grandmothers and grandmothers - would always have to boil water, so much so that we would buy extra jugs, and they would always pour the water in. At a certain point, the little plastic would start coming out of one jug, so we had to go ahead and fill it. And it was a way of life.

LUDDEN: Olufemi is helping distribute water in this emergency. So is Danyelle Holmes with the Mississippi Poor People's Campaign. She moved here from the Mississippi Delta 30 years ago.

DANYELLE HOLMES: Never. I've never drank tap water since I've been here in the city of Jackson. Never.

LUDDEN: The aging water lines can leak, leading to low pressure and contamination. There are also broken water and sewage lines and a lead problem. Holmes boils her water and does take showers, but her water is brown, and she refuses to take a bath in that.

HOLMES: Now, before my mom passed away three years ago, it did me good to just go home to take baths back in Greenwood. You know, that was a luxury for me. So...

LUDDEN: When you ask almost anyone here why the water's been bad so long, the answer inevitably turns to politics and race. School desegregation led to white flight in the '70s. That transformed Jackson into an overwhelmingly Black city and a largely poor one. The mayor is Black and a Democrat. The governor and most state lawmakers are white and Republican. Again, Danyelle Holmes.

HOLMES: Well, this is a direct reflection of those that are in power who have refused or just pretty much neglected to do what they had the power to do. And that's to invest in the infrastructure here in the city of Jackson.

LUDDEN: The mayor says fixing the water system would cost more than billion dollars. And there's no way Jackson's shriveled tax base can pay for that. But when the city asks the state for money, it usually gets far less than requested, if any. The governor blames water problems on the city's mismanagement, and this year, he signed the state's largest-ever tax cut. For Olufemi, it's all part of the country's fraught racial history.

OLUFEMI: I guess when you look at the fiber of America and the way that they have treated people who are economically disadvantaged, and I always go to people of color because that's what I'm experienced in. And I don't think that they care until it, you know, happens to them. So until it affects their homes, their children, their money, then they don't pay attention.

LUDDEN: Carlos Martin of the Brookings Institution says the impact of race and partisan politics on infrastructure is real, and Jackson's residents are not alone. But ideally, the nation's infrastructure should unite people.

CARLOS MARTIN: In many ways, it's a miracle that we don't have more Jackson, Miss., and Flint, Mich., in this country. And that's for the grace of God and infrastructure that ties most communities' infrastructures together. It ties Black and white communities. It ties the rich and poor communities on the whole. And when we don't see those same communities being served by the same physical infrastructure systems, we see more of these cases.

LUDDEN: Martin says cities like Jackson lack the political clout to get the resources they need for long-term planning and investment. And it's not clear this current crisis will lead to that, either.

MARTIN: Money fixes things at the last minute. We have generally history in doing things like what we're seeing right now in Jackson - is declaring an emergency once the damage has already occurred.

LUDDEN: At a recent press conference, when asked why Jackson has had unreliable water for decades, Governor Tate Reeves was defensive.


TATE REEVES: I know that you and the press really want to play the blame game, and you really want to focus on pitting different people against one another. And that's certainly your priority. That's fine. What we are focused on is the immediate health and welfare of Jackson residents.

LUDDEN: It was the first press conference all week where the governor and mayor actually appeared together. Both Reeves and Mayor Chokwe Lumumba repeatedly emphasized their operational unity.


CHOKWE LUMUMBA: When I have been asking for this help, when the state comes to me and says, we're coming to help you, it doesn't benefit for us to try to take jabs at each other, to try to fight in that moment. What we have to take advantage of is this opportunity to realize how we create a better system for our residents.

LUDDEN: Jackson will get some money from the recent federal infrastructure law, which researcher Martin points out most of the state's congressional delegation voted against. And state lawmakers have met in private to talk about new ideas for some kind of long-term fix.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Roll out. This car is good.

LUDDEN: For now, though, thousands of people here will keep lining up for the water they need to cook, wash dishes and drink. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Jackson.

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