Editor’s Note: Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, has been a resident of Jackson, Mississippi, for nearly 30 years. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Headlines this week trumpeted the infuriating news that the state of Texas was planning a takeover of the Houston Independent School District, one of the largest and most diverse school populations in the nation, where 90% of students are Black and brown.
State education officials in Austin plan to name a new board to run schools in the district, usurping the authority of local authorities. The move ostensibly is meant to address lagging academic achievement in a school district that has seen a substantial decline in the number of failing schools in recent years.
The takeover is a playbook that is all too familiar to residents of my city of Jackson – Mississippi’s majority Black capital city – which has been battling the hostile takeover of aspects of its local governance for years.
The racist undertones of what’s happening – in Jackson, in Houston and elsewhere around the country – are undeniable and unacceptable. Mississippi’s White leadership – in a state which has the highest percentage of Black citizens in the nation – does whatever it can to ensure that its Black population remains second class citizens.
Last month, the Mississippi House reestablished a racist precedent from a seemingly bygone era with the passage of HB 1020. The intent behind this legislation was to create a separate, unelected court system and expanded police force on the people who live in Jackson.
Republicans’ overwhelming majorities in Mississippi’s state legislature give them the ability to ram through racist legislation against which Democrats – who represent a majority of Black Mississippians – have no recourse. It’s the opposite of what democracy is supposed to be about.
Water is another weapon that has been wielded against Black people in Mississippi. For decades, residents of the capital city Jackson, where 83% of the population is Black, have had to contend with a tainted water supply the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined could become a breeding ground for E. coli and other pathogens.
The problem became even worse in February 2021, when late winter storms damaged the city’s aging, deteriorating water system, leaving much of the city under a boil water alert. Some residents were left without any running water at all.
But the problem is both systemic and institutional: For years, the state underinvested in Jackson’s basic water infrastructure, turning a blind eye to the water system failures and elevated levels of toxins such as lead, failing to provide even basic maintenance for infrastructure relied upon by Black parents to bathe their babies and tapped by the mostly Black schools for their drinking fountains.
The reaction from our state leadership, including from Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, has been to blame the victim, pointing a finger back at Jackson for alleged mismanagement of a water system state officials never adequately funded.
Eventually, in late 2022, the EPA stepped in, launching a probe of Mississippi’s discriminatory water practices. But the state’s White leadership once again stood in the way of efforts to improve the lives of its Black citizens. The state Senate last month passed legislation – SB 2889 – putting Jackson’s water under state control and siphoning away millions of dollars in new federal funding to help fix the failing water infrastructure. Once again, the White, Republican-run state government has gone out of its way to try to dispossess Jackson’s Black residents.
And now, with the passage of this legislation imposing a ruling power over predominantly Black Jackson Republicans in the Mississippi House of Representatives sent a clear message: The tenet of self-governance that our democracy was built on does not apply to Black people.
The Biden administration can take action to reverse this brazen and highhanded action and can send a message that it will protect democratic governance for people of color who happen to reside in states where they are not in the political majority.
To do so, though, it must set a new precedent for federal oversight over states that systematically wield state power to violate civil rights. Through the enforcement of civil rights and federal nondiscrimination statutes as a condition of distributing federal aid to Mississippi, the Biden administration must continue its work to make Jackson whole.
And it must be equally aggressive in halting the abuses in other states – such as Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Oklahoma – which have also taken a variety of steps to put controls on communities of color.
Congress also has a role to play. It significantly subsidizes states like Mississippi. In my home state and elsewhere, Congress and the President should leverage the upcoming budget debate as a way to strengthen civil rights laws in the states as a requirement for states to access federal programs.
For every dollar Mississippi pays in federal taxes, it receives $2.53 in federal aid, making it the third-most dependent state on the federal government. That gives the US government massive leverage over the state government. Yet, that federal infrastructure funds and other resources flow to states that are actively working to defund the basic needs of Black and brown communities and minimize their political power is criminal.
Racism is deeply enmeshed in the fabric of Mississippi’s culture. When you attempt to disrupt it, you’ll be met with resistance. One step forward isn’t progress, because it will always be met with three, four, five or more steps back. That is, sadly, very much the case as well in other southern states which seem to be adopting Mississippi’s despicable playbook.
The Biden administration can no longer subsidize policymakers, like Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and our state legislators, as they enact clearly racist policies.
State actions to suppress the rights of communities of color must not be tolerated in my state, or anywhere else. The federal government must continue to take aggressive action when the White leadership of any state stands in the way of improving the lives of their most vulnerable citizens.
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