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Leonard Pitts: Good luck getting a drink of water in Jackson, Mississippi

(Edmund D. Fountain | The New York Times) From left, Kris Granger, Victor Evans, Tyisin Peoples, Terun Moore, and Joshua Freeman distribute water to local residents at the Sykes Park Community Center in Jackson, Miss. on Aug. 30, 2022. More than 150,000 people in Mississippi’s capital were without access to safe drinking water on Tuesday, as officials confronted what they described as the “massively complicated task” of distributing bottled water and devising a plan to restore service.

There is no water in Jackson, Mississippi.

Not at this writing, at least. At this writing, the nearly 150,000 residents of the state capital have been advised that even if they are able to coax some of the precious liquid from their taps - water pressure is feeble - it is unsafe for drinking, bathing, or washing dishes. Note, please, that they were already under a boil-water order - the latest in a series. Then heavy rains and flooding overwhelmed the primary water treatment plant in a city where some of the pipes date to the days Model T’s still trundled dirt roads and biplanes carved the skies. Gov. Tate Reeves was unable to say in a Monday night briefing when the situation might be rectified.

So there is no water in Jackson.

And Mississippi should be embarrassed. But Mississippi should not be surprised. To the contrary, it has known for many years that the city’s water infrastructure was too old and brittle to serve its needs. They saw the crisis coming, but they did not avert it.

Mind you, because he was concerned about education that “aims to only humiliate and indoctrinate,” the governor did sign a bill making it impossible to teach “critical race theory” in schools.

And because he wanted to “protect young girls,” he did sign a bill barring transgender student athletes from participating in sports that correspond with their gender identity.

And because he grieved “63 million babies” aborted since 1973, he did sign a bill banning almost all abortions.

He acted to avert those “threats.” But good luck getting a glass of water in Jackson.

All that said, this is not really a column about Jackson. Or, for that matter, water. It is, rather, a column about misplaced priorities. That seems a constant theme where people of color and poor people are concerned, so no one will be surprised to hear that eight in 10 Jacksonians are African American, while one in four is poor. Nor should it stun anyone to hear that experts say Jackson’s woes grow from a sediment of white flight and malign neglect. When it came to making sure 150,000 people had water to drink, Mississippi had more important things to do. But then, poor and/or dark-skinned people are often taken for granted.

Poor and/or dark-skinned people are also the ones who often function as the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Thus, it is worth noting that while white flight and malign neglect are the foundation of this disaster, its proximate cause is simpler: freakish weather broke a decrepit system. And freakish weather, not to put too fine a point on it, is not limited to poor people, Black people, or Jackson. Indeed, climate change having been allowed to reach a state of daily crisis, freakish weather is rapidly becoming normal weather for us all.

One wonders, then, how much longer we can continue misplacing priorities, embracing would-be “leaders” who focus on fighting culture wars, on offering the addictive sugar high of performative thrusts against despised Others - “Take that, critical race theory!” - even as pipes corrode, bridges age, the electrical grid fizzles, sewers clog, roads buckle and weather grows more freakish.

Here’s an idea. How about if we required those who govern to actually govern, i.e., to protect and maintain basic services and quality of life? How about if we valued simple competence over sugar highs? How might that be?

See, there is no water in Jackson. And yes, that’s an embarrassment for Mississippi.

But it’s a warning for us all.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com