By Angela Dawson, JMA Mississippi Community Engagement Coordinator
What do Flint and Benton Harbor, MI and Jackson have in common? All three have a water crisis, all three are majority Black, all three have high poverty rates, and all three have been crippled by white flight.
After Brown v. Board of Education integrated America’s schools, whites began leaving cities by the thousands to live in segregated suburbs taking the tax revenue they created with them. White flight made its way to Mississippi as well. Former Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett once said, “There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide.” As a result of this mass exodus out of Jackson, if any of the Black residents who were left behind went to the sink to get a glass of water, they would be literally be drinking a cup of genocide.
Our capital city’s infrastructure hasn’t had any major investment for quite some time, but the recent water issues are the most humiliating. Jackson is bordered by a 30,000 acre reservoir—ironically named after the white supremacist I quoted earlier—but didn’t have a drop to drink.
Jackson’s water crisis is the latest example of the kind of plantation dynamics that still plague Mississippi 150 years after slavery. Racism not only pollutes the water in Mississippi, it pollutes the workplace as well. The dynamics of worker exploitation we see today all have their roots in slavery. White southern planters, who made their fortunes off the backs of enslaved Africans, had no tolerance for northerners or abolitionists talking about freedom and equality. During the height of the cotton boom, Mississippi had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. Planters would rather go to war than even entertain the notion of freeing their slaves and paying a wage like the owners of factories in the North.
We see a similar dynamic today in how our public money is handed to corporations (or in some cases, Brett Favre) instead of investing it into our infrastructure and our people. In the last few decades, major manufacturers like Nissan and Toyota have opened plants in Mississippi because of the billions of dollars the state doles out to these businesses to set up shop here. Mississippi is actually the birthplace of the tax incentive—in 1930, the state used subsidies to lure a company out of Chicago, and since then tax giveaways like Mississippi’s have fueled a manufacturing boom across the South.
Workers in these plants are mistreated, overworked and uninformed about their rights, and employers engage in union-busting tactics to ensure that workers can’t organize for better conditions. The minimum wage here is only $7.25, and employers that pay more than that—even if it’s not much more—feel like they can do whatever they want to their workers. Nissan, for example, attracts workers because it pays $15 an hour. I was recently on a workers rights panel with other Mississippi organizers and U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, and one Nissan worker talked about the “plantation culture” at the plant, and how workers there feel like property.
Since it’s our tax dollars that are given away to these companies that perpetuate those plantation dynamics, we essentially end up funding our own exploitation.
Mississippi’s anti-union environment is another way racism pollutes the workplace. Mississippi is an “at- will” or “right to work’” state—a major selling point for big corporations. Only 5% of Mississippi’s workers are union members, and the workers that are in unions are mostly white males—that means 95% of workers who have no representation are subjected to low pay, unsafe working conditions, and humiliation in exchange for a paycheck. 18.7% of residents live at or below the national poverty level, and 91% of those poor are people of color. Since unions have been proven to close wealth gaps for Black workers, allowing workers to organize has the potential to address these longstanding inequities.
But politicians from Southern states have been able to successfully convince voters that unions will stifle the businesses that are moving here. This also has its roots in slavery: The powers that be in the South are desperate to maintain access to cheap labor. When federal troops pulled out of the South after the Civil War, they left Black people in a dangerous position. With no protection from Union soldiers, whites in the South—still seething with anger over the loss of the war—were able to easily take back every gain made. This is the system that created Jim Crow, segregation, disenfranchisement, lynchings and the resurgance of the KKK. Rich whites were able to essentially get their free workforce back by passing racist vagrancy laws. This unjustly put African Americans back on plantations by using convict leasing programs, which started America’s current prison-industrial complex.
The South is without a doubt the most anti-union, anti-worker region in the U.S., and the poverty here makes all modes of worker abuse possible. But I also see it as the new frontier for labor rights. It will be hard to undo over 150 years of exploitation and achieve true freedom for Black workers, but we are making progress. There are battles being fought and won all over the South.
Recently Jobs to Move America and our coalition in Alabama signed a community benefits agreement with New Flyer, the largest manufacturer of electric buses in North America. The agreement—which includes its facility in Anniston, Alabama—commits to hiring and promoting people of color and women, hosting debt clinics for workers, and starting apprenticeship programs. Like Mississippi, Alabama doles out billions in tax dollars to corporations, and workers there face exploitation. This agreement will help level the playing field for marginalized workers, and Jobs to Move America wants to do the same in Mississippi.
Being Mississippi born and bred has allowed me to see that anything worth having is worth fighting for. We don’t give up when the odds are against us. We don’t give up fighting for what is right. We don’t give up.