Jackson’s water crisis requires long-term solutions and private investment

OPINION: Entrepreneur and philanthropist Robert F. Smith calls on corporate leaders to adopt his 2% Solution plan, which asks companies to pledge 2% of their net income to charities and organizations combating structural racism. 

A member of the National Guard places a case of water in the back of a car at the State Fair Grounds in Jackson, Mississippi, on September 2, 2022. (Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The massive deluge in August that knocked out a decaying water plant in Jackson, Miss., and left more than 180,000 people without clean drinking water is just the latest example of how the United States’ crumbling infrastructure and the devastating effects of climate change are teaming up to inordinately affect communities of color throughout the country.

From Flint’s water crisis in 2016 to the ongoing calamity that is Louisiana’s “cancer alley,”  Black and brown communities across the country are disproportionately the victims of environmental racism, with numerous studies showing that people of color are far more likely to live in areas with higher rates of air pollution, toxic waste facilities, landfills, and lead poisoning.  A recent paper by researchers at Princeton University found that Black Americans are 75% more likely than white people to live in “fence-line” communities—areas near commercial facilities that produce noise, odor, traffic or emissions that directly affect the population.

For too long, the country has dealt with these issues only when they become a public health emergency—forgetting them once they exit the headlines and allowing the problems to continue festering in these historically neglected communities. So, while President Joe Biden declared a federal emergency in Jackson—sending federal aid to the city—and Gov. Tate Reeves sent in the National Guard, fixing the water crisis in Jackson requires a commitment that will last long after the Salvation Army stops handing out water bottles and the media turns off the cameras.

In a hopeful sign, lawmakers in Washington last fall passed the sweeping $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, but so far only $75 million for water infrastructure in Mississippi has gone to the state—and those funds have focused on lead pipe replacement. This falls far short of the $1 billion Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said his city “literally” needs for its entire water system to be replaced.

Whether it be through reprioritizing some funds from the infrastructure bill or finding a new source of federal funding, lawmakers need to find ways to help one of the country’s poorest cities fix this crisis for good.

All levels of government need to take the lead on solving the issue in Jackson, but corporate America can also help play a role. We have seen business and industrial leaders take a leading role in combating inequities and structural racism before—most recently, pledging billions of dollars in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020—and we know the impact their dollars can have.

And, from chemical plants to oil and gas refineries, corporations have long been major contributors to the environmental issues facing communities of color, so it is only fitting that they now play a part in remedying this situation. One concrete way to do this is for businesses to use as a framework the 2% Solution.

The 2% solution is a plan I devised in 2020 that calls on corporate leaders to pledge 2% of their companies’ net income over the next decade to charities and organizations combating structural racism. I chose 2% as a target because that is the average amount that U.S. households give in charitable contributions. I reasoned that if American households can afford to donate that amount, then so can American companies.

While the 2% Solution has focused on issues such as the digital divide, lack of access in Black communities to health care and educational opportunities, and helping grow Black-owned businesses, a similar strategy focusing on environmental issues can quickly be created to tackle issues ranging from air quality to substandard drinking water.

Urban revitalization strategist and radio host Majora Carter said that “no community should be saddled with more environmental burdens and less environmental benefits than any other.” Yet as we see time and time again—from trash incinerators in Chester, Penn., to filthy water in Jackson—Black communities across the country routinely bear the brunt of industrial pollution and negligence. In the case of Jackson, this comes in the form of sewer lines unable to deal with intense rainstorms, leaking 100-year-old pipes, malfunctioning water treatment plants, fault meters, and a woefully understaffed water utility.

Recognizing the problem, however, is only the first step in combating these types of structural and environmental racism. To right the wrongs that have plagued communities of color for decades, it is going to take a concerted effort on the part of both the public and private sectors, a good deal of money, and a commitment to long-term, sustainable change.

While repairs have already begun in Jackson and life has returned to some semblance of normalcy, without a complete overhaul of the city’s water system, the fix will be just a Band-Aid over a wound that requires much greater intervention. That intervention needs to come in the form of investment from both lawmakers and the private sector and focus on a long-term solution to a problem that has been decades in the making.


Robert F. Smith is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder of the investment firm Vista Equity Partners.

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