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NAACP Files Race Discrimination Complaint Against State Over Jackson Water Crisis

NAACP CEO and President Derrick Johnson
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People CEO and President Derrick Johnson joined others to file a complaint against the State of Mississippi on Sept. 27, 2022, accusing the State of discriminating against Jackson, Miss., in the disbursement of federal funds to support its water system. Photo courtesy NAACP

JACKSON, Miss.—Jackson resident Deidre Long has lived with her blind adult daughter in Jackson, Miss., since 2018, and the water crisis in the capital city has only made caregiving more difficult. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People shared Long’s story in a complaint filed on Wednesday, Sept. 27, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The NAACP and others are asking the EPA to investigate the State of Mississippi for alleged discriminatory practices in its disbursement of federal funds in relation to infrastructure needs of the capital city.

“For years, the State of Mississippi, its agencies, instrumentalities, and officials (collectively “the State”) have discriminated on the basis of race against the City of Jackson, Mississippi (“Jackson”) and its majority-Black population by diverting federal funds awarded to ensure safe drinking water and unpolluted surface waters and groundwater,” the complaint alleges.

The complaint says the water crisis in the capital city has caused Long, who is one of the complainants, “significant financial and personal hardship.”.

“In addition to the difficulties of purchasing expensive water and carrying it upstairs to her condo, the unreliable water also presents difficulties for Ms. Long’s adult daughter, who is blind,” it stated.

“Due to her visual impairment, Ms. Long’s daughter is unable to tell if water is brown or discolored,” it added. “Ms. Long now needs to assist her daughter with tasks that require water, like washing her face or showering. The water issues greatly increase Ms. Long’s caregiving workload, and greatly diminish her daughter’s independence.”

Complaint Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, and 40 C.F.R. Part 7 Regarding Discrimination by the State of Mississippi Gravely Adversely Impacting the Drinking Water System for the City and the Health and Well Being of the People of Jackson, Mississippi
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others filed the complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Sept. 27, 2022, alleging that the State of Mississippi discriminated against the capital city in its disbursement of water-system resources.

The complainants include: NAACP CEO and President Derrick Johnson, former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., Jackson Public Schools District Board President Edward Sivak Jr., Jackson Federation Of Teachers President Akemi Stout, NAACP member Charles Jones, Jackson Public Schools Board member Frank Figgers and three other Jackson residents. The filing says each complainant has faced the brunt of the water crisis in the capital city over the years.

‘Long-Standing Pattern and Practice’

The NAACP filed the complaint in a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Acting Director of the EPA Office of External Civil Rights Compliance Anhthu Hoang, alleging violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The statute prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin … under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The complainants accuse the State of Mississippi of engaging in “a long-standing pattern and practice of systematically depriving Jackson the funds that it needs to operate and maintain its water facilities in a safe and reliable manner.” It singles out the Office of the Governor, the Office of the State Treasurer, the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration, the Mississippi State Department of Health and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

“For example, the MSDH and MSDEQ both received funds from the EPA to provide safe drinking water and wastewater, and were aware of Jackson’s severe needs, but distributed to the city only a small fraction and disproportionately low amount,” the complaint says. “Indeed, despite Jackson’s status as the most populous city in Mississippi, State agencies awarded federal funds from the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (DWSRF) just three times in the twenty-five years that this program has been in existence.

“Meanwhile, the State has funneled funds to majority-white areas in Mississippi despite their less acute needs,” it says. Jackson’s population is about 85% Black.

“In addition to denying Jackson a share of federal funds proportional to its need for safe and reliable drinking water, the State has exacerbated the funding gap by repeatedly denying Jackson the ability to fund improvements to its drinking water system, to manage its debt, and to thereby protect its residents,” the complaint says.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan (pictured) and Acting Director of the EPA Office of External Civil Rights Compliance Anhthu Hoang received copies of the complaint filed against the State of Mississippi on Sept. 27, 2022.  Photo by Nick Judin

The offices of the governor, the state treasurer, the Mississippi Department of Health, and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality did not respond Tuesday to the Mississippi Free Press’ requests for comment for this report.

The same day the lawsuit was filed, the Associated Press reported on a pattern of the State’s disparate treatment of the capital city’s infrastructure needs. Michael Goldberg of the Mississippi Associated Press bureau recounted how then-Gov. Haley Barbour and then-State Treasurer Tate Reeves had both declined to include Jackson’s urgent water needs on its 2010 bond list. The white state leaders also made it more difficult for Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. to request state resources for water-system repairs.  AP cited Adam Lynch’s 2010 Jackson Free Press reporting that the State then required the majority-Black capital city to file an additional applications for assistance that legislators said they had never seen another Mississippi town be required to do.

In the same story, AP reported that then-Treasurer Reeves appeared on the Paul Gallo radio talk show and used the barriers to water resources for Jackson as a campaign talking point proving that he was a “watchdog.” He was amid a successful campaign to become lieutenant governor in 2012 and serve two terms.

“If we are not comfortable, we never bring it up for a vote,” Reeves said then of the requested resources for the capital city.

The EPA is reviewing the NAACP’s new Title VI complaint and said that “determination is expected within the next 25 days,” the organization explained in response to a request for comment on Sept. 27, 2022.

“EPA is in receipt of a Title VI complaint related to the State of Mississippi’s funding of Jackson’s water system,” the EPA said in the statement to the Mississippi Free Press. “The complaint is under jurisdictional review by our Office of External Civil Rights Compliance to determine if an investigation is appropriate.

NAACP President Blasts ‘Racist Funding Policies’

In a statement on Sept. 27, 2022, the NAACP said it is calling for an investigation “into the State of Mississippi’s gross mishandling of the water crisis in Jackson,” citing “a long history of discrimination through years of neglect and the repeated denial of requests for federal funds.”

“The residents of Jackson, Mississippi, a predominantly Black community, have suffered at the hands of discriminatory state leadership for far too long,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in the statement. “It is apparent that the racist funding policies of Governor Tate Reeves and the State of Mississippi prevented the execution of critical infrastructure updates necessary to avoid the crisis we are now facing.”

Harvey Johnson smiling against a red wall
Former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson, Jr. joined other residents of Jackson on Sept. 27, 2022, to file a racial-discrimination complaint against the State of Mississippi. Photo courtesy Jackson Free Press / Trip Burns

The EPA, on its website, explains the basis of Title VI and what federal agencies should do, including monitoring for discriminatory disbursement of federal resources.

“Under Title VI, all federal agencies, including EPA, are required to ensure that federal funds do not subsidize programs or activities that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin,” the organization said. “The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) oversees the implementation of Title VI throughout the federal government and requires departments and agencies to develop regulations and guidance under Title VI.”

If the investigation is accepted, the agency’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance will follow a process detailed in its case resolution manual dated January 2021 that will include conversations with stakeholders.

While arguing for the appropriateness of the complaint, the NAACP and others said in the Tuesday letter that they have identified “long-standing and continuing violations by various entities of the State of Mississippi who receive and disburse federal funding from the EPA and are thus bound by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

“MSDH has received more than $454 million in Drinking Water State Revolving Loan funds from EPA, and the governor-appointed Local Governments and Rural Water System Improvements Board has established allocation priorities and awards for the EPA funding through the Board’s annual Intended Use Plans,” they wrote. “Similarly, the MSDEQ, has received significant Water Pollution Control (Clean Water) State Revolving Loan Funds to support improving wastewater infrastructure, amounting to $997 million through 2021.”

“Mississippi is thus required to comply with Title VI and EPA’s Title VI implementing regulations, but continually fails to do so,” they continued. “This failure has created disproportionate, severe, and on-going adverse impacts to individuals protected under Title VI.”

Mississippi Old Capitol building
A complaint filed with the Environmental Protection Agency on Sept. 27, 2022, claims that Mississippi’s capital city has not received the federal funding needed to address its water needs partly because of “a long history of discrimination through years of neglect and the repeated denial of requests for federal funds.” Photo by Nick Judin

The requested reliefs include compelling “compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act through equitable funding allocations to address the Jackson Water Crisis and protect its residents,” and “restitution for the citizens of Jackson.”

‘Discriminatory Funding Toward An Increasingly Black City’

The complaint highlights what it regards as the limited attention that Jackson’s water system has received from state revolving loans.

“As mentioned above, Jackson has received state revolving loans from the MSDH in three years of the program’s 25-year history,” the complaint continues. “Compare that result with the success of the Bear Creek Water Authority, for example, which serves rural areas in the majority-white Madison County.”

“Bear Creek, with its customer base of 40,000 customers, received rotating water funds in nine of the last 25 years, starting at the very inception of the program: 1997, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 (in which it received three grants), 2015, 2016, and 2018,” the complaint adds. “No surprise, then, that Bear Creek was awarded the Mississippi Water Distribution System of the Year for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022 by the Alabama/Mississippi Section of the American Water Works Association, while Jackson’s water system degraded to the point of multiple catastrophic failures.”

The complaint includes Jackson Public Schools board member Frank Figgers’ comments on his experience of the water problems in the city from the vantage point of having lived there for more than 70 years.

“While he recalls that his family had water problems for more than half a century, the problems in the beginning when Jackson was mostly white, were relatively minor,” the complaint says. “He recalls the State spending money to build the city’s water infrastructure when the city was mostly white.

“Mr. Figgers also observes that ‘[a]s Jackson’s Black population grew, the water problems seemed to get worse.’ His experiences provide rare personal context to the State’s practice of discriminatory funding toward an increasingly Black city.”

 

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