by Danielle Purifoy
On December 12th, the Alabama Black Belt did something that 68% of white Alabamians refused to do—reject the election of a white supremacist sexual abuser to the U.S. Senate. Ninety-six percent of black voters in Alabama supported Democrat Doug Jones, a candidate who did not so much inspire confidence in his political agenda as he presented a far less loathsome option than Republican Roy Moore. Black voters in the Black Belt elected Doug Jones by a higher margin than they did for Clinton in 2016, and Obama in 2012 and 2008—all the more extraordinary considering the levels of voter suppression in Alabama and the fact that special elections typically have far less voter turnout than presidential elections.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this victory—besides the NAACP’s brilliant mobilization strategy in collaboration with LGBT organizations—is the fact that the Black Belt changed the political calculus of a state that demonstrates little investment in its residents—regardless of political party. Named for its fertile black loam soil, which was cultivated by the hands of the enslaved, the Alabama Black Belt raised “King Cotton”— and much of the antebellum economy of the Western Hemisphere. Though it has always been a site of black political resistance—it is the birthplace of the original Black Panther Party—it is also now a site of hostile disinvestment.
Senator-elect Jones now has a mandate—and moral imperative—to mobilize long-awaited resources and power to the region. He can start with the basics—clean water and sanitation.
Two weeks ago, for the second time since 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights investigated systemic human rights violations in the Alabama Black Belt, particularly with regards to basic services. The difference this time is that Special Rapporteur Philip Alston visited the region to see the conditions firsthand. In 2011, Catherine Coleman Flowers, executive director of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), gave testimony about conditions in the Black Belt to the former Special Rapporteur, Catarina de Albuquerque, who reported that 82% of Black Belt residents rely on on-site sanitation systems, with no access to conventional sewer lines. In just one Black Belt county—Lowndes County—the Alabama Department of Public Health estimated that 40-90% of residents lack access to adequate wastewater sanitation infrastructure. A Baylor University study published earlier this year revealed that 34.5% of residents tested in Lowndes County suffered from hookworm due to exposure to raw sewage deposits in and around their own homes.
Several factors make simple solutions to this problem nonviable. Though the Black Belt’s rurality makes decentralized systems like septic tanks more economically feasible in many cases than traditional sewer lines, the clay soil that covers many parts of the region will not drain well enough for a traditional septic system. More advanced household systems typically cost as much or more than the median household income of the region.
Public funding for infrastructure presents a dilemma; state and federal agencies now preside over loan programs for basic infrastructure—like the Clean Water State Revolving Fund—which prioritize creditworthiness over necessity in making funding decisions. Most Black Belt communities cannot pursue economic development without access to credit and credit access generally requires some economic development. Additionally, Alabama has the lowest property taxes in the continental United States (second only to Hawaii), and the Black Belt has some of the highest rates of absentee landownership in the state—mostly by the timber industry and other agricultural interests with little investment in contributing tax dollars to local development.
Finally, until at least 2014, some Black Belt residents living with raw sewage were jailed and fined for endangering public health, contributing to an already dire black land loss crisis and creating a chilling effect on disclosures of living conditions for advocacy purposes. In the last known case, a minister in Pike County AL was arrested due to raw sewage leaking from a failed septic tank on the property of the church he served, despite rejected efforts to connect to local sewer lines.
These are the mechanisms of structural racism and poverty. The consequences of inaccess to sanitation infrastructure (which impacts water quality)—just one of the myriad challenges facing the Black Belt—touch every facet of life for residents, from health outcomes to job prospects; from education to generational wealth. A change in those conditions could mean a transformation of the region.
Black Belt infrastructure is Black Power.
In the waning days of the Jones campaign, the Senator-elect was flanked at a Saturday event by two members of Congress—Senator Corey Booker and Representative Terri Sewell.
Sewell stumped for Jones’ commitment to improving health care access, and Booker—who has become heavily involved with addressing infrastructure challenges and other environmental justice issues across the country—focused on Jones’ potential to protect the future of the Black Belt region.
Flowers, who has been advocating for better sanitation access in the Black Belt for over 15 years, emphasized that Jones’ win requires action on this issue.
“Now that Senator Jones is in office, he needs to use his position to help all citizens in Alabama, whether they reside in rural or urban communities,” she said via email.
“He needs to help erase wastewater infrastructure inequality.”
Black voters generally, and black women especially, stepped forward last week to protect themselves—and by extension, the nation—from the worst of American power and excess. This is not a “miracle” so much as it is an old and reliable pattern.
The real miracle will occur when Jones breaks the old and reliable pattern of Democrats forgetting who put them in office.
Danielle Purifoy is a lawyer (HLS ’12) and a current Ph.D candidate in Environmental Politics and African American Studies at Duke University. She studies environmental racism and black geographies in the U.S. South. She is also an editor for Scalawag, a magazine devoted to Southern politics and culture.