Jackson, Mississippi, and the Contested Boundaries of Self-Governance


Brian Highsmith (@bd_highsmith) is an academic fellow in law and political economy at Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. candidate in government and social policy at Harvard University.


Brian Highsmith (@bd_highsmith) is an academic fellow in law and political economy at Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. candidate in government and social policy at Harvard University.

Last August, as more than 150,000 residents of Jackson, Mississippi, entered their third day without access to safe or running water amidst a sweltering summer heat, President Biden declared a federal emergency. Around the same time—its water shortage still ongoing—Jackson was in national headlines for an additional reason: as the sole jurisdictional target of a controversial state bill to establish a separate state-administered court system and an expanded state-run police force to patrol the whitest areas within the Blackest major city in America.

When Congress allocated $600 million to begin to rebuild Jackson’s drinking water system as part of a year-end omnibus package, the funding provided hope for a delayed resolution to the immediate environmental crisis. But this intervention—approved after decades of state-level neglect and then distributed just weeks after Mississippi’s partial takeover of Jackson’s punishment infrastructure—only highlighted an enduring democratic crisis that extends across our federal system. Assessed together, these two episodes offer lessons about the challenges of local self-governance in a country awash with material inequality and the importance of pursuing political equality across as well as within jurisdictions.

The Territorial Boundaries of Self-Governance

Biden’s emergency declaration was precipitated by the rainstorm-induced failure of Jackson’s largest water treatment plant. But the city’s aging water system had been in crisis for decades—long beset by periodic system outages (and routine “boil notices”) as deteriorating sewer lines operated without needed replacements. Both prior to the emergency and during its extended duration, state officials repeatedly rebuffed funding requests from Jackson, calling it the city’s own responsibility and publicly questioning its capability for self-governance.

During the height of the crisis, for example, Republican Governor Tate Reeves told reporters that Jackson needed “to do a better job collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.” This self-governance responsibility is conceptualized in static jurisdictional terms, but the actual distribution of the funding obligation—who is “Jackson”?—has changed over time, in ways directly connected to the current crisis. As the NAACP’s Abre’ Conner put it, “as Jackson became more and more Black, it’s faced more and more obstacles in getting the resources that it needs.”

Much of the housing wealth in the greater Jackson area exists not in the city but rather just outside it, in segregated suburbs whose economic resources are beyond the territorial reach of Jackson’s property tax authority. I have previously written about how, under our fiscal federalism design, “municipal boundaries . . . function effectively as tax shelters for white residents of segregated neighborhoods.” But it is worth noting here: this degree of fiscal separation is a somewhat recent occurrence in Jackson.

For almost a century following its initial construction in 1888, the city’s water system was strained primarily by overuse from a steadily growing biracial population. In a neat microcosm of national trends, however, this pattern reversed itself during the period following the passage of landmark federal civil rights statutes and judicial school desegregation orders. As noted by a recent New York Times dispatch: “For decades, the city’s population has been shrinking, an exodus propelled in large part by the flight of white residents—along with their tax dollars—to surrounding affluent suburbs where, by and large, the water . . . [is] flowing just fine.”

As these residents of “Jackson” (the metro area) fled “Jackson” (the municipality)—and the attendant fiscal burden of its public infrastructure—city boundaries remained largely fixed. On several occasions, Mississippi’s Supreme Court has rejected efforts by the city of Jackson to expand its depleted tax base by annexing unincorporated land surrounding its boundaries. In 1997, the Court went so far as to decry one such attempt as a “tax grab,” asserting—after a lengthy recounting of the City’s fiscal woes and public service deficiencies—that the state’s municipalities “are not designed for the purpose solely, nor chiefly, of raising revenue.” This ruling is striking for many reasons, including the fact that such fiscal impact assessments are often used—including in Mississippi—to legally justify the selective refusal of majority-white municipalities to annex unincorporated majority-Black neighborhoods just outside their boundaries, on the seemingly contradictory grounds that extending municipal services would fiscally burden the city. 

The Democratic Valence of Local Control

In previous writing in these pages, I have argued that the fragmentation of a city’s tax-base, in the absence of centralized transfers, undermines democratic control in left-behind communities by empowering the interests of mobile capital. By contrast, the consequences for democracy of jurisdictional fragmentation are far from clear. Richard Thompson Ford has written eloquently about the conflict, in local government law, “between [democratic] inclusiveness and the exclusiveness that makes community possible”; he concludes that, “especially for racial minorities, some degree of separatism may represent the best or only avenue to empowerment and fulfillment.”

Similarly, Heather Gerken has argued that local institutions uniquely allow minoritized groups to exercise a “muscular form of voice” in policymaking, while K. Sabeel Rahman and Jocelyn Simonson have observed that a “growing set of social movements has in recent years revived interest in ‘community control’” as a mechanism for “shift[ing] power in a more equitable direction.” And indeed, speaking out against Reeves’ proposal to privatize Jackson’s water infrastructure, NAACP president Derrick Johnson emphasized the importance of self-rule: “Local control is absolutely crucial. Local control allows for the citizens to self-correct when things go awry, especially when it comes to your water bills.”

Importantly, the consequences of “local” control depends on, among other things, the territorial delineation of the relevant jurisdictional boundaries—a dynamic that extends beyond local government law. In“Hammer and Hoe,” Robin D.G. Kelley recounts the advocacy of early 20th century Alabama Communists to advocate for political self-determination within the counties of the Deep South where disenfranchised Blacks constituted a numerical majority of residents. As Aziz Rana recounts in his forthcoming book, this “Black Belt thesis” represented a broader critique, that the states (as jurisdictional units) functioned to deny Black representation; the logic of self-rule motivated the imagination of alternatively-drawn political units that might better facilitate the conditions for Black equality.

But Jackson’s water crisis illustrates a difficult tension. In the absence of economic redistribution across jurisdictional boundaries, political separation between spatially-segregated groups—and particularly between historically dominant and oppressed populations—is generally accompanied by structural constraints on the marginalized jurisdictions’ ability to self-govern. This can be observed also in the post-colonial experience, where limited rights to political self-determination are conceded even as broader economic redistribution—that might facilitate genuine self-rule—remains fiercely resisted.

We might thus imagine the stakes of “local control” to be conditional on the institutional form: determined not only by the substantive policy to be devolved, but also by how jurisdictional boundaries overlap onto spatial patterns of residential segregation. And on questions involving economic redistribution (as distinct from, say, administrative control over programs funded by higher levels of government), we may observe that local control can often undermine the ability of vulnerable communities to translate their preferences into policy outcomes. Although devolution to smaller (demographically “sorted”) jurisdictions may indeed provide marginalized groups with the ability to freely select from among available policy options, that menu is structurally constrained by the institutional arrangement.

Hoarding Power

Even this theorized tradeoff, however, presumes that local communities will retain the ability to democratically select from the (limited) menu of policy options. But the case of Jackson aptly illustrates how observed forms of jurisdictional and fiscal separation are so often accompanied by strategic efforts to strip political power, and decisionmaking authority, from disinvested minoritized communities.

Earlier this summer, Governor Reeves signed into law two bills that, together, expanded the geographic jurisdiction of the state-run Capitol Police and established a new criminal court system overseeing Jackson’s downtown. A New York Times report observed the “inescapable context”: in a city that is over 80 percent Black, currently governed by a Black mayor and majority-Black city council (with Black judges in each of the elected positions in Hinds County), “[t]he proposed court system, and the police force, would be controlled almost exclusively by white officials in the state government.” The NAACP and others sued, arguing that “these laws target Jackson’s majority-Black residents on the basis of race for a separate and unequal policing structure and criminal justice system to which no other residents of the State are subjected.”

Conceptualized as a matter of “local control,” this preemption effort (part of a national trend) might seem in tension with the logic of fiscal separation operating behind Jackson’s water crisis. But history also helps us identify the common threads. Drawing parallels to the period of white conservative retrenchment that immediately followed the conclusion of Reconstruction, Dan Farbman has termed this instrumental approach to institutional design “Redemption Localism”:

The question for Redeemers was never whether, as an abstract matter, local control was preferable to centralized control. Rather, at decision point after decision point, the question was how the balance between local and state power could be manipulated and adjusted to protect the Redeemers’ political power and further the struggle for white supremacy.

And indeed, the clear throughline across both observed trends in Jackson—fiscal separation, through jurisdictional fragmentation; and local disenfranchisement, through aggressive forms of state preemption—is the entrenchment of structures that hoard power (economic and political) to a still-dominant white elite.


In their 2020 framework, the academic framers of the LPE approach called for new scholarship that embraces “the need for political judgments about the gravest questions: who should exercise power, of what sort, and over whom?” To guide this inquiry, they articulated an orientating principle for the field: “Our basic commitment is to democracy.” But one challenge that is brought into sharp relief by recent events in Mississippi is the unresolved ambiguity aptly captured by Sarah Song’s memorable phrasing: “Democracy is rule by the demos, but by what criteria is the demos constituted?”

Local government law provides a particularly compelling vantage point from which to consider the contested territorial boundaries of “the demos,” and to assess which institutional arrangements are most likely to advance the ideal of democratic self-governance, particularly under institutional arrangements that prevent redistributive transfers across economically-unequal jurisdictions. Seen this way, Jackson demonstrates the importance of seeking to ensure political equality not only within but also across jurisdictional units—the boundaries that separate them understood not merely as politically constructed, but as sites of consequential contestation over the determinants of human flourishing.

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