The water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, is the latest in an arc of environmental catastrophes affecting predominantly Black communities from Flint, Michigan, to New Orleans. Often, these disasters are preceded by decades if not centuries of segregation and government neglect. Once a water crisis begins, it rapidly spirals into a comprehensive disaster with ripple effects on a community’s economy, education, and more. As of Sept. 15, Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi has declared Jackson’s water safe to drink, but a long battle to properly resource the city’s recovery remains ahead. Vangela Wade of Mississippi Center for Justice joins The Marc Steiner Show to discuss the struggle on the ground, and Jackson’s place in a larger pattern of environmental catastrophes linked to systemic racism.
Vangela Wade is the president and CEO of Mississippi Center for Justice, a public interest law firm advancing racial and economic justice through an approach that combines legal services with policy advocacy, community education and media outreach.
Studio/Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden
Marc Steiner: Hello, I’m Marc Steiner. Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. Good to have you all with us. I never really thought about the arc of racism and water until covering this disaster in Jackson, Mississippi. This devastating arc between the water infrastructure disaster in Jackson, Mississippi, water poisoning in Flint, Michigan, and the avoidable disaster in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and how deeply connected they are. The waters that sickened, drowned, and left communities devastated, but let loose by the racist neglect that permeates political power in this country.
So once again, we return to Jackson, Mississippi. We’re joined by Vangela M. Wade, who’s president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm committed to advancing racial and economic justice, a group that’s taking on the struggle legally to the powers that be, which are in many ways living legacy of the embodiment of segregation that preceded it, and working with communities to fight racism and for an equitable society. In one of the most, I hate to say, backwards states in the country, Mississippi. And it’s interesting that this is about the same time that Katrina exploded, that we saw what happened in Jackson. And Vangela M. Wade, welcome. Good to have you with us.
Vangela Wade: Thank you, Marc. And I will say, certainly Mississippi has its many…
Marc Steiner: It does.
Vangela Wade: …Shortcomings. We’re at the bottom of the worst list of social indicators and at the top of the worst list of social indicators, such as health education, economics, criminal justice. But there are people here who are fighting the fight, people here who have made strides and significant changes. So we are fighting to move past some of the stigma that Mississippi has perpetuated for years. So we have some backwards leadership in certain areas, but we certainly have very progressive… We have communities that are very progressive, and we have people who are leading organizations similar to Mississippi Center for Justice that are just as progressive and who are making sustainable change in the city.
Marc Steiner: Very well said. And I agree. I suppose sometimes, it gets, as it must to you and many others, it just gets to you sometimes about how crazy it is, I mean, when you have this governor who’s saying, well, it’s Jackson’s fault. They didn’t put the money into this place. And then you have, as you wrote about, people who are taking the money that was meant to help people being stolen by the wealthy and squandered. I mean, those situations are just maddening. They’re insane.
Vangela Wade: You’re exactly right. What we try to do is try to keep our eye, we try to keep our eyes in the focus forward, because we do realize that, for instance, with regards to the resources that are allocated from state leadership, in many instances, when it comes to not only Jackson, but other majority Black municipalities, that those municipalities, those communities, aren’t always getting their equitable share of the resources. Particularly the resources that are even given, whether it’s through tenant funds, or whether it’s through the recent various relief funds. And so those are particular areas that we are going to continue to keep our eyes on in the event that we may need to determine if there’s some action that should be taken, as we did with Katrina.
We had to go to bat for Black people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast who were not given their equitable share or, heck, [crosstalk] share, following Katrina, to make repairs to their homes, as compared to those homes that were on the beach. They were owned by majority white citizens. The Black citizens were left out, not only left out of their homes by Katrina and that devastation, but also by the state government, until the Mississippi Center for Justice went in to fight that battle. So we are here for the people of this state, for our stakeholders. And when we see an injustice, we will do our best to make a change.
Marc Steiner: And it does seem… Just for a moment, as you were speaking, I was thinking about how, while this was going on, we were recording on our side here in Baltimore, Maryland. And just two weeks ago, we had the same scare on the West side of town, the majority Black community, where there was E. coli in the water. Or what’s happening in Newark, or Flint, or across the country. I think people need to be able to connect these dots and say… Understand what is really happening here, to the poorest and Blackest communities in America when it comes to our water infrastructure and poisoning of our children and families. It’s a very serious problem.
Vangela Wade: You’re exactly right. It’s a rippling effect. It’s not just an infrastructure issue. It becomes a healthcare issue. And ultimately it becomes an education issue. It’s an economic issue. So what may start out as the municipalities or the local communities not receiving their equitable share of resources from the state, it ends up impacting the citizens in a way that will take decades to overcome. And when you’re looking at situations such as the city of Jackson’s current water crisis that is not that current, it’s something that’s been ongoing for more than 50 years now. And it’s just come to, as we say in the South, it’s just come to a head at this point. And of course, all eyes are focused on Jackson. But as you mentioned, there was Flint, Baltimore. There are other areas that have similar infrastructure issues, similar issues where the citizens in those municipalities are being poisoned by water.
We’re certainly concerned about the amount of lead that’s in the water here in Jackson, but that could be said for small towns in the Mississippi Delta as well. Again, those areas being primarily African American. And so while we don’t want to say that everything is related to race and discrimination, sometimes it’s just there. It’s there, and it’s the obvious connection. But what we are looking at now is… I guess the immediate issue, of course, is the water crisis in Jackson. What we should all start to focus on is what will it take to correct this situation, or to make this situation better for the people, the people who are depending on not only the local leadership, but the state leadership to actually lead. And we are finding that that’s not happening.
So we also then have to start and we have to look at the long-term impact and long-term solutions. Quite frankly, we don’t have a lot of hope at this point in the same people doing the same thing and seemingly as though they’re expecting a different outcome. So with everybody, with all the media’s eyes and attention and the cameras and the microphones in Jackson at this point, we are hoping that the attention will be a lasting attention so that the people who are most responsible for leading will do just that and will bring some change to the citizens of Jackson.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to come back to the political issues that you face in Mississippi in this struggle here around water and more in this particular moment. But I’m just curious, at this moment of our taping, what I’ve read is that the water pressure is back on, but the water is still not fit to drink. Am I right?
Vangela Wade: That’s what I am understanding as well. And certainly we have received substantial outpouring of help all around the city from people coming near and far and bringing water. Certainly, that’s wonderful, and we’re so humbled by that. But we’ve got to look forward and know that, eventually – Well, hope that eventually the leadership will do what it takes to make the repairs, to bring the water quality to where it is something that’s not basically the same as a third-world country. We have to worry about our children and the water that they’re drinking and how that’s going to impact their health, as well as our elderly citizens who are impacted by this water crisis as well. So there is a rippling effect, and we are hoping that change will come very soon.
Marc Steiner: So I was thinking about what the governor, Governor Reeves said, he said he 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. And at the same time, it’s the same governor who vetoed what was a bi-partisan legislation that would’ve provided relief to poor residents, saying he doesn’t agree with the idea of it, calling it free money. So when you’re up against that kind of political mindset, that kind of human mindset, societal mindset, what do you do? How are you confronting that? How are you addressing that? How are you dealing with that? I mean, that’s got to be difficult, to say the least.
Vangela Wade: Yeah. You’re exactly right. It’s not something that’s new for us, that type of rhetoric. It’s unfortunate. And I think it’s more of a political approach to real problems, and it’s a way to deflect the state’s lack of oversight or lack of engagement in the capital city. So when comments such as those are made, you can’t do anything about what a person will say. But then what we are hoping is that people will exercise their right to vote, privilege to vote, and make a change at the ballot box, to change the people who are in charge of making the decisions about allocating resources and who receives those resources and how those resources are allocated.
That’s where we need to spend our time, where our focus is not worrying about the political rhetoric, but focusing on voting. And if people would go out to… If they would vote, regardless of who they’re voting for – I’ve recently been reminded that we must always be nonpartisan – But regardless of who they’re voting for, they need to exercise that vote, looking at the resources that are coming in and out of their communities and if they’re receiving their equitable share of those resources. Whether it’s the governor or whomever it may be, if they want to spend their time and focus on ridiculous statements and comments such as that, then so be it. But the people should be heard, and they should be heard at the ballots.
Marc Steiner: So a couple questions here. One, I’m curious more about the Mississippi Center for Justice. You seem like you’re like a number of legal agencies I’ve been associated with a bit in the past all rolled into one, in terms of the work that you do. Talk about what you are doing as an organization to address what’s happening at this moment.
Vangela Wade: Well, as you mentioned early on, the Mississippi Center for Justice is a nonprofit, public-interest law firm. We’re the only nonprofit public-interest law firm homegrown in the state. And our focus is not only on advocacy, but also direct services, impact litigation, as well as policy. And this particular, what we call a… I guess this is a quasi-man-made, natural disaster. Certainly the floods was the impetus to this current focus on the water crisis, but governments, the state, the city’s failure to collaborate, failure to allocate resources, was what I would say was the man-made disaster.
So at this point, we are doing what other organizations are doing. We’re focusing on immediate need, providing in coalition resources for the community. We are also looking at some mid-level or mid-term type of solutions. And also, without saying a lot or giving away strategy or plans, we are also looking at some of the long-term issues to determine if there’s additional actions that we need to take. So it’s all on the table.
Marc Steiner: All on the table. I was thinking about what [inaudible] was saying. Would take billions to fix the immediate problem, even more to fix the long-term issues. They’ve just passed this $1.2 trillion bill in Congress around infrastructure. The question is how that helps Jackson. I mean, if the money’s going through this state of Mississippi, there’s no telling what Jackson will get or not get, how little it might get. And why can’t Jackson get the money directly from the federal government? What kind of efforts are being made to control the funding coming in so you can actually put people to work, change the infrastructure and get that done? Because if you listen to the governor of that state, the money coming in, as we used to say, I bet you a dollar to a donut, that money is not going to Jackson. So tell me about that, what’s happening with that, and whatever role you’re playing in that?
Vangela Wade: Well, I will just say with regards to that, certainly we’re not around those tables. That’s way above my pay grade with regards to how the system of allocation from the federal government through the state and down to the city of Jackson. But what I will say is that to me, in my opinion, rolling the money, the funds out directly through the state and hoping that a state such as Mississippi, with the systemic issues and history of discrimination in play, seems a little ridiculous. And it’s similar to when you have Block money that comes through the federal government to states through basically Block Grants, which is what happened with the tenant funds. And then the state and the governor are able to decide how that money is to be distributed, and whether or not it actually gets to those that it was intended for is a different issue.
So at this point, again, we are focusing on the immediate assistance that we can provide, and then looking at the issues and the impact on the community to determine if there are other actions that we need to be focused on. Similar to what we focused on during Katrina, when we did realize that funds were not being distributed as they should, for the folks who needed it most, and eventually that resulted in litigation. So not saying that that is what we are specifically doing right now. I am saying that it is all on the table as it becomes appropriate.
Marc Steiner: But you are a legal organization. So if litigation’s necessary, you’re there.
Vangela Wade: We could be there.
Marc Steiner: I was thinking about what you just said as well. And if you could give people a sense of what it is like for the people in Jackson at this moment, just in terms of surviving around water and water issues. And we know that there’s this whole arc in America where communities of color are always in the most dangerous disastrous position when it comes to situations like this. So talk about what it is like day-to-day for you, for other people in Jackson at this moment?
Vangela Wade: Well, with regards to many people in Jackson who are experiencing this current and trying to live through this current crisis with not having water running through their faucets for cooking, or to drink a glass of water with medicine, or to take a bath or shower without worrying about dangerous bacteria or whatever else is in the water, it’s not easy, as you pointed out. It’s not easy, sometimes, being at the bottom of the barrel with regards to resources. So the citizens in Jackson are doing what I’ve seen them do best over the last 20 years that I’ve lived in this area. They’re fighting through. They’re fighting through the issues, they’re fighting through the challenges, because they’ve got to go to work, they’ve got to raise their children, they’ve got to take care of the elderly. We’ve got to educate. Life continues, notwithstanding the challenge of the current water crisis.
So I’d say that, and then I, really with realizing the fight that the people in Jackson are pushing through, I say that, and I am imploring those in leadership, from the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker, those in the legislature, be they Black or white, and the local, the mayor, the city council, whomever it is that these people who were voted in, who were given the responsibility to lead, I am asking that they do just that. That they lead and make those decisions in the best interest of the people, not in the best interest of a political party, and not in the best interest of continuing systemic discrimination or injustice to hold up an ideology.
The people in Jackson are pushing forward. They’re receiving all of the wonderful help with regards to the water and other resources that are allowing them to go through their daily lives. And we are hoping that the water system will be repaired over time, and the water will become drinkable, and they will be able to push at least that challenge behind them and move forward with their lives.
Marc Steiner: I mean, yeah, because for those of us who just turn on the faucet and drink the water, to think about what it would be like to have to boil your water, find water, get bottled water, take care of your children, make sure they don’t get sick. It’s like we’re creating the worst conditions you would imagine in a developing nation as opposed to being in the United States of America.
Vangela Wade: Exactly. And when you think about that, and you think about that in terms of, certainly, people who are elderly or people who are living with illnesses or disabilities, and they’re not able to get out and about to go stand in the long lines to get a case of water to take home to use for bathing, for eating, for drinking, that makes it even just more ridiculous that we are in this country in 2022, and this is the issue that is taking the headlines.
Marc Steiner: What would it take to get President Biden and the federal government to give the money directly to Jackson, Mississippi, to redevelop this infrastructure, put people to work and change… Because the infrastructure is crumbling across the entire nation. Lead pipes… It’s crumbling, and Jackson, I’ve talked to folks there, and they say literally the pipes are crumbling in people’s hands, literally crumbling. So what would it take to get the money directly into the hands of Jackson, Mississippi, to do the work themselves without having to go through the capital down the street?
Vangela Wade: Yeah, well, again, that one is above my pay grade, and I’m sure that the mayor of Jackson, and the city council, they’re probably wondering, trying to answer that same question. Why can’t the monies be sent directly to the place, to those who need it, those who are going to be responsible for implementing? That’s the system as it is. We just hope that once the money is sent through the state that there is an equitable distribution from the state through to the city to make these repairs. Now that there’s money coming in from not only… Certainly not from FEMA, but the federal government. Of course there was the infrastructure monies that were already being delivered, and we are hopeful that money will be used in a way that will address the city’s problem.
When we look at this issue, we need to make sure that we are seeing the people that are being impacted. It’s not a city, but it’s the community. It’s the community that’s suffering as a result of the failures, the failure from the state level, and possibly the failures at the city level, because this goes back years. The people who are harmed the most are those that have entrusted, regardless of whether the money’s coming from the federal straight to the city or through the state, the people who are being harmed the most are people who put their trust in the leader, the current leadership at all these various levels.
Marc Steiner: So I’m curious as we conclude, so in your center, you were in the middle of a lot of the work to make sure things were right in rehabilitating things after Katrina. So what is your role now? What are you doing in Jackson? What steps are you all taking to address and deal with this? Whether it’s on an organizing level in the community or legally in terms of fighting it in the courts?
Vangela Wade: Right. We are working in collaboration, in coalition with other social justice organizations and community organizations to help provide resources, and we are also working with groups to look at more intermediate and long-term solutions. So that’s where we are now. And these things, what I’ve seen over the last few weeks, this is what I call a… It’s evergreen. Things are changing on the ground, it’s changing within the community, the resources that are coming in are changing each day. But one thing is for sure: The water crisis is real, the water is undrinkable, and we’ve got to continue to keep the people in mind, to keep them as our focus, to look at what we need to do as a community, as social justice organizations, as governmental agencies, to rectify this situation for the citizens of Jackson. And so as this continues to unfold, Mississippi Center for Justice will continue to engage with the community, and we will continue to have discussions from within as to how we should address these issues moving forward.
Marc Steiner: Well, I really do appreciate you taking the time, and I also appreciate the work that you’re doing at the Mississippi Center for Justice and the fight you’re making for a more equitable society. And I will stay in touch because you’re in the midst of a real battle for people’s lives. Not just for a better society, for, actually, people’s lives. And so I want to thank you so much, Vangela Wade, for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you, and good luck.
Vangela Wade: Thank you, Marc, for having me.
Marc Steiner: We’ll stay in touch.
Vangela Wade: Thank you.
Marc Steiner: And I hope all of you out there have enjoyed this conversation. And once again I want to thank you all for joining us. And please let me know what you’ve thought about what you heard today and what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll get right back to you. And if you have an extra minute, stay there. Go to therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor and become part of the future with us. So for Stephen Frank, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivara, and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.