[Marxism] How Racism Ripples Through Rural California’s Pipes

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 30 16:14:51 MST 2019

NY Times, Nov. 30, 2019
How Racism Ripples Through Rural California’s Pipes
In the 20th century, California’s black farmworkers settled in waterless
colonies. The history endures underground, through old pipes, dry wells
and shoddy septic tanks.
By Jose A. Del Real

TEVISTON, Calif. — Bertha Mae Beavers remembers hearing stories as a child
about the promises of California, a place so rich with jobs and
opportunity that money, she was told, “grew on trees.” So in the summer of
1946 she said goodbye to her family of sharecroppers in Oklahoma and set
out for a piece of it.

For decades she labored in the Central Valley’s vast cotton and grape
fields, where eventually her children joined her. Looking back, Ms.
Beavers, who turned 90 this year, has sometimes wondered why she left home
at all. It was all the same trouble, she said.

Amid a vast migration during the early 20th century, tens of thousands of
black people like Ms. Beavers came to California’s farm country from
far-off states in the Cotton Belt and the Dust Bowl.

And as in other parts of the United States, black migrants were met with
Jim Crow-style racism: “Whites Only” signs, curfews and discriminatory
practices by banks. Often, the only places black families could settle
were on arid acres on the outskirts of cultivated farmland — places like
Teviston, the all-black colony where Ms. Beavers raised 12 children in “a
two-bedroom shack” with no bathrooms or running water.

“When we came out here, there were just about two houses and the rest were
in tents, just tents, and no water, we had no water for years,” Ms.
Beavers said one recent evening, surrounded by several of her adult

Today, the legacy of segregation in the Central Valley reverberates
underground, through old pipes, dry wells and soil tainted by shoddy
septic systems.

Lack of access to clean drinking water remains a problem across California
today and low-income communities are disproportionately affected. As many
as 350,000 people lack access to potable water in the San Joaquin Valley
alone, according to a 2018 report by the University of California Davis
Center for Regional Change. Many people say the conditions resemble the
developing world; others call it the Appalachia of the West.

Many labor settlements and rural communities that formed as nonwhite
enclaves are today just miles away from more reliable water systems, and
yet they remain without access.

The lingering effects of such isolation are especially clear in the
handful of rural colonies that once provided refuge for thousands of black
farmworkers — from Lanare in Fresno County to Matheny Tract in Tulare
County to Fairmead in Madera County. These small towns are now
predominantly Latino and are among the very first to lose water when
drought comes. When water does flow, it is often tainted by arsenic or
other chemicals.

California is not the only state facing problems with drinking water
supplies. Nationwide, approximately two million Americans lack access to
running water or indoor plumbing, according to a recent report by the
nonprofit organizations DigDeep and the US Water Alliance.

The report found race and poverty were key variables in predicting access
to clean drinking water and sanitation. “The United States is home to some
of the most reliable water and wastewater systems on earth, and many
Americans believe access is universal,” the authors wrote. “But in fact,
millions of the most vulnerable people in the country — low-income people
in rural areas, people of color, tribal communities, immigrants — have
fallen through the cracks.”

In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed into a law a measure to
provide $130 million annually for the next decade to rebuild water
infrastructure in many of the poorest communities around the state. The
money, say activists and water policy experts, will finally provide an
opportunity to consolidate many small water systems with larger municipal
systems nearby that are more resilient.

Local governments and nonprofits are waiting to see which of them will be
the first to receive infrastructure money from the new fund.

And now, some in the state say the money should explicitly account for the
way communities of color in the Valley have been neglected by county and
municipal governments. Such “utility reparations” can become an instrument
for justice, said Camille Pannu, a water policy expert and the former
director of the Aoki Water Justice Clinic at the University of California,

As part of the process, they say, Californians must confront the largely
forgotten history of segregation in the state.

The first black farm workers came to the San Joaquin Valley in the late
1800s following the Chinese Exclusion Act. At the time, cotton was
becoming a crucial crop in the region, and local farmers recruited black
farmworkers from the South. As more black people moved to the Valley, many
cities responded with racist policies which segregated black people either
through laws or outright violence.

It was precisely the lack of water which made it possible for black people
to buy property and homes in places like Teviston. Nobody else wanted to
live there.

“That’s why these communities exist,” said Michael Eissinger, a lecturer
in history at Fresno City College. “They are the direct response to Jim
Crow practices in the San Joaquin Valley going back to the 19th century.”

In the 1920s, Albert and Alberta Curry moved from Chicago to Fairmead,
where they built a house and began to farm cotton and alfalfa on a parcel
of land, according to their granddaughter, Nettie Amey, 66.

“They came out here to start their own life, to thrive, to make their own
way,” she said.

Ms. Amey, who now lives in nearby Madera, has happy memories of growing up
in Fairmead. But she also remembers the community relied on outhouses and
drinking water that was not always safe.

The new state funding and consolidation, community organizers say, can be
used to heal these past wrongs.

“There’s a history of discrimination here and we have to right those
wrongs,” said Veronica Garibay, co-director of the Leadership Counsel for
Justice and Accountability, a public policy organization based in Fresno
that works with rural communities.

Some may call that “reparations,” but others resist the term. The national
debate over reparations has focused largely on direct restitution to
descendants of slaves. Broad infrastructure programs to redevelop
communities that were shaped by segregation are less commonly discussed.

But even as questions about water infrastructure and segregation
resurface, black families have largely moved on from these rural
California farming communities and Latinos have taken their place.

The infrastructure isolation continues as new families move in.

In Teviston today, one shallow well contaminated with cancer-causing
chemicals provides water for 350 people, according to Juan Carlos Mariano,
who manages the town’s water district.

Residents are told not to drink the water but, Mr. Mariano said, it is
likely people still do so because they cannot afford enough bottled water
to get by. Consolidating with the nearby town of Pixley could benefit
everyone, but old demarcations have proven hard to break.

Through a process called “selective annexation,” many low-income
communities are excluded from the city limits of expanding towns. Ms. Amey
marvels that the city of Chowchilla annexed land “in Fairmead’s backyard”
on which two prisons stand — but not in Fairmead itself.

Tax money from those prisons, the community was promised in the 1980s and
’90s, would help develop Fairmead’s infrastructure. Instead, Chowchilla
received the funds.

Still, more money is not always the solution.

Sometimes, despite state grants and incentives, many residents in the
communities with safe drinking water resist consolidation.

In 2016, the state was forced to intervene when the City of Tulare reneged
on a binding legal commitment to provide drinking water to Matheny Tract,
a small farmworker community of 1,500 that was once predominantly black.
Matheny, just one mile away from Tulare, was plagued with unsafe levels of
arsenic in its drinking water, according to health inspections and local
news reports.

As the drought intensified earlier this decade, the community’s septic
systems began to fail as well, resulting in toxic soil and a sour smell
throughout town.

But the city refused to connect the systems even after the state made
nearly $5 million available to build the project — despite a clear legal
obligation. The city was repeatedly warned it was violating state and
federal civil rights laws protecting communities of color. The city’s
leaders, who did not respond to requests for comment, said at the time
they did not have jurisdiction over Matheny and could not take its
residents on as customers.

Ultimately, the state resorted to using new powers to legally mandate a
consolidation, the first time it had done so. Today, the fight continues
to persuade the City of Tulare to connect Matheny to its sewer treatment
system, which is across the street from Matheny.

Questions about fairness, though, are often further complicated by the
endemic poverty in the Valley. Low-income communities sometimes must
compete against each other for resources and attention.

Norma and Jose Juan Bustillos have lived for 35 years in Fairmead, where,
on farmworker and trucking wages, they raised four children. Their walls
are covered with family portraits, including one of their daughter in her
Army uniform.

Mr. Bustillos, 64, who grew up in Fairmead, said the transformation from
majority black to majority Latino came with significant tensions in the
1980s and 1990s.

But those relationships have evolved. About 12 years ago, Ms. Bustillos
became a member of Fairmead Family and Friends, which Ms. Amey co-founded.

Several dozen private wells on the outskirts of town have gone dry in
recent years, said Ms. Bustillos. Until a few years ago, the well used by
most of the community was powered with a modified 1964 Ford car engine,
she said. Amid the explosion of almond groves around town in recent years,
residents worry more competition for the limited groundwater in their
community will leave them more vulnerable.

For now, they intend to continue fighting and organizing.

“It’s a constant struggle just to survive,” she said. But “our kids grew
up here. Our families have roots here. How can we go somewhere else?”

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