Robert Cherry
Author: The State of the Black Family

What We Should Learn from the Jackson (MS) Water Crisis

For six months Jackson homes had no clean water; a result of unprecedented rains and undermaintained treatment facilities. There has been a predictable urge, just as in Flint, to link Jackson’s problems to systemic racism. “Racism set Jackson up for failure,” said Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It was a lack of investment in Black people that failed the water system.” Similarly, when discussing Jackson’s plight, University of Maryland urban studies professor Marcus Hendricks asserted:

The legacy of racial zoning, segregation, legalized redlining has ultimately led to the isolation, separation and sequestration of racial minorities into communities (with) diminished tax bases, which has had consequences for the built environment, including infrastructure.

Jackson’s decline over the last fifty years, however, has little to do with redlining, segregation, or racial zoning. There is no question that state neglect reflected white indifference to Jackson’s needs but the city’s downfall has had more to do with other factors that impacted black communities nationally, even where there has been a much smaller imprint of racist policies. And only by focusing on these other factors can we identify the necessary policies to move Jackson forward.

As with virtually all central cities, the 1970s and 1980s saw a white suburbanization process. In many cities, white responses to school desegregation amplified these trends. Of note, while school desegregation was initiated in 1971, there was only modest white flight from Jackson in the 1970s. There were signs of a moderation of racist behaviors reflected by the voluntary integrating of neighborhood swimming pools in 1975. This moderation was sparked by a series of bombings of Jackson’s main synagogue and the home of its rabbi in 1967:

In response to the bombing of Rabbi Nussbaum’s home, 42 clergymen and sympathetic citizens joined in a “walk of penance” to Beth Israel. There they held a Thursday night vigil, which attracted a crowd of 150 people, most of whom were not Jewish. Local newspapers and state officials denounced the attacks and expressed support for Beth Israel. (Earlier bombings of and arson attacks against Black churches drew far less attention). In 1968, a full page ad in Jackson’s daily newspaper called for an end to “hate, discord [and] violence” in the city was signed by numerous civic and business leaders.

Both Jackson’s white and Jewish populations actually grew during the 1970s, though its white population share did fall from 60% to 52%, declining further to 44% by 1990. It was during the 1990s, however, that white flight dramatically increased so that by 2000, whites comprised only 27% of Jackson’s population.

Just as importantly, the black middle class also fled to Jackson’s suburbs. This was typified by the changing profile of suburban Clinton. It had 3,500 residents in 1960 but by 1990 had a population of nearly 22,000, and only 17% were black. By 2010, however, 34% of Clinton’s 25,216 residents were African American. Moreover, the suburbanization of Jackson’s black population reflected a national phenomenon. Roughly 54% of Black residents within the 100 biggest American metro areas were suburbanites in 2020.

As William Julius Wilson predicted in the 1980s, once the black middle-class leaves, community institution flounder and neighborhoods become increasingly dominated by the poor. In the last forty years, the number of US neighborhoods with more than 30 percent poverty rates has doubled. These poverty concentrations generate adverse behaviors, including rising crime. Even more so than other cities, Jackson’s homicide rates increased.

Sparking the exodus, Jackson’s early 1990s homicide rate was among the highest in the nation, averaging more than 40 per 100,000, almost double the rate in the vast majority of large cities. While Jackson’s rate subsequently declined, it increased in the last decade, reaching 98, higher than any city nationally. At the same time the police force has shrunk from 520 to 290 officers. However, when the Washington Post recently analyzed the situation in Jackson, it never mentioned how crime rates impacted white and black flight. Instead, it only pointed to “failing infrastructure, not just water but also roads and schools.”

What Jackson and struggling black neighborhoods need are policies to improve the life chances of their residents: serious crime prevention, better schools, and housing improvements that make them attractive to middle-class families. Government funding is necessary to improve policing because safe streets are a prerequisite for other changes. Planned gentrification, as exemplified by Warren Buffett’s Purpose Built Communities, create the infrastructure necessary, including charter schools, that have been successful in transforming poor black neighborhoods that benefit both incoming and legacy families. These policies not outcries against racial injustices are what we should mobilize around.

About the Author
Robert Cherry is a recently retired professor of economics at Brooklyn College. Author of Why the Jews? How Jewish Values Transformed Twentieth Century American Pop Culture (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021); and The State of the Black Family: The State of the Black Family: Sixty Years of Tragedies and Failures—and New Initiatives Offering Hope (Bombardier 2023).