TheGrio Daily

Can Water Be Racist?

Episode 37

“White people get welfare from Black people.” The water crisis unfolding in Jackson, Miss., has been foreshowed for decades and yet the city was still not prepared. Michael Harriot takes a look at what went wrong and explores other American cities that continue to fail Black residents when it comes to basic needs that their tax dollars pay for. 

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Michael Harriot [00:00:05] Oh, man, thank God. You know, I know everybody was worried. The residents of Jackson was without water for like four days. Over Labor Day weekend. Man. And I know there’s a big controversy online where, you know, whether or not you should wash your chicken or you shouldn’t wash you chicken, but you suppose the wash your chicken though, don’t listen to the white people on the Internet. Wash your chicken. And, you know, we were all worried about what was going on in Jackson. But luckily, they fixed it. You know, everything’s fine now. I guess we’re out of the water. You know, we’ve averted another, hold on. Yeah. What? What? I’m sorry. I just. Got word from the control booth that there’s another crisis in Baltimore now, like in Baltimore. Well, while you’re getting more information. Welcome to theGrio Daily, the only podcast that will tell you about the racist water crisis. I’m Michael Harriot, world famous wypipologiest. And this is theGrio Daily. 

Michael Harriot [00:01:20] Yes. And I know you all to ask how can water be racist? Okay, so it’s really like water is neutral. It can be racist unless you put, you know, like Capri Sun, because Capri Sun is racist, but water isn’t necessarily racist. But, you know, there are studies that show that cities with majority Black populations are more likely to have water crises. In fact, there’s a study from an organization called Dig Deep that shows that the number one predictor of whether somebody will face a water crisis or not isn’t, you know, how poor they are. Or, you know, whether they pay a water bill is literally their race. That’s it. And so if you’re wondering why these communities, especially majority Black communities, face these water crises, we’re going to explain it here today. 

Michael Harriot [00:02:22] Right. So the first thing you need to know is like, you know, this what happened in Jackson, Mississippi, is different from what happened in Flint, which is different from what happened in Baltimore, but not really. Right. So the problem with all of these municipal water supplies. Is that the municipal water supply is paid for and handled by the city and the taxpayers in the city pay for their municipal water supply. But again, not really like, you know, in cities like Jackson, in cities like Flint, in cities like Birmingham, Alabama, which had its own water crisis. How they fund it is that these larger cities, you know, basically charge other cities to share their water supply. And as they expand the water supply, newer pipes are given to basically to people in suburbs, and they never get around or spend the money to repair the older original pipes that fed the city. And of course, we know that demographically cities are more likely to be Black or nonwhite. The residents of those cities. So the residents of the cities usually are drinking from older pipes, which sometimes are contaminated with lead. And in the case of Baltimore, it’s E coli. That’s not my cousin Eric Coli, that’s another different dude. But these problems exist because they cost a lot of money in the case of of Jackson billions. And you say, well, why don’t they just pay the money? What are people who live in the city pay the taxes? They pay their water bill. But there’s this other phenomenon that you need to know about. And it’s about how white people get welfare from Black people. And it’s not just with water. But in this instance, we’re going to use water to explain how this happened. 

Michael Harriot [00:04:40] Now, the first thing you need to know is that Black people pay more money in taxes. Yeah, I mean, that’s true. That’s an objective fact. Like, you know, we might not make as much money, but we pay a larger percentage of our income in taxes because of a number of reasons. The main reason being that the tax code is constructed to benefit white people. It was created by white people. It’s been constructed to benefit white people. For instance, about two, three out of every four white people own. So homeowners get a tax break, renters don’t get a tax break that benefits white people. Right. It’s not necessarily anti-Black, but it benefits white people. You know, people who are married. Get a tax break. People who are single don’t, even if they earn the same, a couple earns the same amount of money as a single person. But more white people are married, so they put that loophole in there to help them. It’s not necessarily anti-Black, but it benefits white people. And the same is true with a bunch of other things. Like if right now you found a job that pays you $1,000,000 a year, you will pay more taxes than a white person who inherited $1,000,000 because the estate tax is zero. Because it benefits white people. Not necessarily anti-Black, remember? Just benefits them because they get to make the law as they get to make the rules. And so all of these Black people who are paying these higher tax rates, even though they on average earn less per capita or earn a lower median income. That money doesn’t necessarily go back to Black people. White people get more benefit from the tax code. They get more government grants. White farmers, you know, like during the Trump administration, white farmers got 99% of the money that the USDA set aside for that little trade war thing. 

Michael Harriot [00:06:55] The tax code helps white people because they constructed it. Now. In all of these majority-Black cities. Usually it’s the biggest city in the state. So Jackson is the biggest city in Mississippi. Birmingham is the biggest city in Alabama. You know, Baltimore is the biggest city in Maryland. And that bulk of tax money, whether it is income tax money, whether it is sales tax. Mississippi is one of the few states that is funded primarily off state tax. It comes from those big old Black cities. And then it gets spread all around the state. For the state to do what it needs to do to fix the roads, for fix the bridges would give grants to businesses so that taking the money that comes out of these majority Black communities primarily and spreading it around to everybody. For. In the case of Mississippi, in the case of Maryland, in the case of Alabama, in the case of many states around the country. Two white people. And how do you explain this? So let’s look at some examples. So let’s look at Jackson, because Jackson is the biggest case most recently, and it’s a prime example of how Black people subsidize the comfort in the lives of white people. Because water is not just something that you drink when you get thirsty, it’s necessary. It’s the most abundant natural resource on earth, but it is the most important. And it’s a commodity. If you got water, it’s a form of wealth. Right. So. Jackson, Mississippi, like Jackson is about 7%, seven and a half percent of the entire state population. But. 9% of Mississippi’s state revenue comes from Jackson because, again, it’s the biggest city. That’s where the revenue comes from, from sales taxes. So 9% of Mississippi’s revenue comes from Jackson. 

[00:09:22] But when Jackson applied for a grant to help it fix its water pipes. They couldn’t get it. The government, the governor, the state legislature said no. Why did they say no? Because they white. Mississippi’s legislature is 71% white, even though the state is only 58% white. So they have this big, disproportionate white legislature. And why is that? Well, Mississippi’s constitution allows them to seat legislatures by statewide vote. In other words, if a person doesn’t get a majority in an election, the white people, the legislature gets to choose who won the election, they can just basically overrule an election. And as a matter of fact. In the 140 years since Reconstruction a Black person has not been elected to statewide office in Mississippi, which is crazy because Mississippi is the Blackest state in America. It has the highest percentage of Black people and. It has the highest percentage of Black voter participation and registration. Like 83% of the Black people in Mississippi are registered to vote. They vote in higher percentages than any other state in America. Yet in the Blackest state. They haven’t elected a Black person to statewide office in 140 years. And they pay more money. And they provide the revenue for all of those white people to live. Now, when the pandemic happened and the federal government issued out these COVID relief funds is what they called it, two different states. Jackson was like a bear. Like, that’s a great idea. We give you all most of the money. And now that y’all got some money, that will help us with our pipes. Right? They applied for the grant, and there were two separate grants. One was from the infrastructure package that passed and one was from the COVID relief fund. 

Michael Harriot [00:11:50] Now they just deny the funds for the current relief funds. Right, which was $42 million. $42 million was less than the 9% that Jackson provides to the state of Mississippi. But the state of Mississippi, those legislators said no, they said they don’t want to give out free money. And then so Jackson applied again. But this time they say like are literally have money for infrastructure that is supposed to help fix water pipes and access to clean and safe drinking water. Hey, how about some of that money? And the state of Mississippi said, look. We’ll give you all some of this money if you can match the funds. Right. So you’ll need, like $300 million to fix your pipes. You’ve got $150 million, and we will give you 150 million dollars. Bruh, if we had $150 million we would have fixed the pipes. So, the legislature said, look, I mean, we ain’t giving ya’ll no government handouts again. That’s not the government’s money. That is our money. That is the people’s money. There’s no such thing as the government. It’s just people who pay taxes. For the taxes to be redistributed among the people who need them. Mississippi said no. And that’s how the water crisis happened. But this there’s just one other fact that you need to see. Mississippi knew that this water crisis was going to happen for a long time. For years. Since the seventies. But in the 1970s. Black people started moving into Mississippi. And to Jackson, to the largest city. And white people saw Black people coming. And they started moving out. And then in 1997. Jackson elected its first Black mayor. And white people fled like hell. Now. The water crisis had existed since the 1970s. But. Those white people who are in charge of this municipal government going who were in charge of the water supply. 

Michael Harriot [00:14:15] They didn’t try to fix it. Not only didn’t they try to fix it. They kept expanding it. And when it was white, people move, they didn’t move, like to New York or to L.A. They just moved to the suburbs. Well those white people were getting the benefit of that municipal water supply with new pipes that those Black people were paying for it. And so all of those suburbs around Jackson, they got good, clean drinking water. But when they lost that water pressure, it was the people in the majority Black parts of the city. They didn’t have access to water. The white people were fine. The white people who didn’t pay the bill when it was due in the seventies, when it was due in the eighties, when it was due for most of the nineties, they were fine. They had their water. Those white people who benefited from those sales taxes and those income taxes that those people in Jackson pay they will fine. And the same is true with Baltimore. Baltimore pays a disproportionate amount of income and sales taxes to the state, but don’t receive a commiserate amount back. And so those people, those residents are subsidizing the wealth of white people, the safety, the health, because, again, water isn’t just a commodity. It’s the most important natural resource for our bodies. And so when we think about this, we can’t just think about it in terms of they didn’t fix the pipes. They need some money to fix the pipes. Where are they going to get the money from? The people pay the money. For us to have a stable and healthy society and economy and. When that money has to get filtered through white legislatures, through white hands. They give it to white people because they have constructed the tax code. 

Michael Harriot [00:16:32] They have constructed the revenue code. They have constructed the way that they disburse money and handle expenditures to benefit. There, people. And if the Black people in Mississippi and Jackson died because Jackson isn’t the poorest, it is a matter of fact. Jackson, even though, is the Black city in America. It has the highest employment rate in Mississippi or the lowest unemployment unemployment rate. Whichever way you want to look at it. You know, they like to cast it as a problem with, you know, a poor Black community. But everybody in Mississippi is poor. Like it has one of the highest poverty rates in America, the highest among all of the states. Right. Only the District of Columbia is has a higher poverty rate than Mississippi. So. That poverty rate is due to that conservative idea that the money that people get from the government, our money is some kind of a handout. And they perpetuate the idea because they know who’s paying the money. Those Black and nonwhite communities. That fund the state for the benefit of white people. And that’s why that conservative ideology is not just anti-Black. It is robbing every Black taxpayer of its health, of its economic opportunity, of their ability to exist as people, as human beings on the planet. As a matter of fact, like this is how racist water can be. Like one out of every three white people say they are concerned about the quality of their communities drinking water. And two out of every three Black people say the same thing. That’s according to a poll by the Associated Press and is another interesting fact. When a study was done by a group called Dig Deep, you know, it’s a water advocacy organization. They found that race, not poverty, race, not municipal budgets. Race was the number one indicator of whether someone had access to clean water and sanitation. 

Michael Harriot [00:19:05] And that’s why. Water can be racist. And that’s why you need to subscribe. That’s why you need to download theGrio app. That’s why you need to tell a friend about this podcast. And that’s why we always leave you with. Famous core common Black saying that we all can identify with if there’s racism in Mississippi. It must be in the water. We’ll see you next time on theGrio Daily. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review. Download theGrio app. Subscribe to the show and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, suggestions and compliments to podcasts at 

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