The P Word

They had just opened the four-lane divided highway between my hometown and the county seat, some 15 miles away. They had been working on it all my life, and now it was wide open, and I had just gotten my driver’s license.

In those days, I drove a 1972 Ford Torino with a 302 V8, a 4-barrel carburetor, and a speedometer that went to 120, even if that was largely aspirational. The wide, straight lanes were irresistible to me and others, and it quickly became the place where races happened. Which is how it came to be that I was doing 85 miles an hour when the blue lights showed in my rearview mirror, and my heart was now in my throat as the Highway patrolman was walking toward my car.

He looked at my license and then looked at me.

“Are you Hugh Hollowell’s boy?”

This is one of the downfalls of having a dad who everyone knew.

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I should give you a ticket. But at the speed you were going, it would be expensive. I’m not going to give you a ticket this time. But I am going to call your Daddy and tell him about this.”

I gulped.

“If it’s all the same to you, sir, I would just as soon have the ticket, and Daddy not know anything about this.”

He howled, he laughed so hard.

“I bet you would. OK, consider this a warning. It’s lucky for you I know your daddy. Get out of here, but for crying out loud, son, slow down.”

With both hands on the steering wheel, I drove home at 45 miles an hour, aggressively using my turn signal.

* * *

Because of all the struggles around the water system here and the utter unpredictability of when they will get it straightened out, I bit the bullet and bought an under-sink reverse osmosis water filtration system.

It cost around $200, all told, and it took a rather lazy 2 hours to install. I needed a drill, a ¼-inch drill bit, a Crescent wrench, a pair of Channel Lock pliers, and a Phillips-head screwdriver, all of which I already had. I’m pretty sure a plumber would have charged around $300 to put it in, plus parts, and if you had bought it from a door-to-door sales company, it would have probably been around $1800.

I was telling someone about it and my decision to do it, and they said, “You’re lucky you know how to do that.” Well, in the first place – I didn’t. I mean, I had never installed a reverse osmosis machine before. But the instructions were understandable, and I took my time and worked through them.

But It wasn’t that I was lucky – it’s that I was privileged.

Privilege is a polarizing word these days. But it needn’t be. It just means you have access to something someone else doesn’t have.

Like, with the water filter. It was simple for me to install and I could afford to do it and had the time to do it. None of those things are guaranteed to be true for someone else. If I worked at Dollar Tree, I probably wouldn’t have a spare $200 lying around. I used simple tools, but if I had to buy them for this task, it would have added substantially to the cost. I had the 2 hours to spend doing it. I had a father who taught me to be confident with tools and handwork.

But it doesn’t stop there. I’m a homeowner, so I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to install the water filter. I know how to read and have good reading comprehension skills. I have internet access and a credit card. I have no physical impairments that would prevent my doing it.

And every one of those things is a point of privilege. I carry many other points of privilege as well. For example, I’m a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, well-read, Christian male born in the United States of America. In the world I live in, every single one of those points gives me access to things other people don’t have. And I didn’t ask for any of them.

Other people that Highway Patrolman pulled over that day did not have access to having a father that worked in EMS. I wasn’t smarter than those people, more affluent than those people, or have an easier life than those people. I just had access to an advantage they did not. And because of that, I did not suffer a penalty they would have. Or, put another way, my relationships gave me privileges (like freedom from the consequence of my actions) they did not have.

In the same way, my privilege buys me freedom from uncertainty around the quality of my water that some of my neighbors do not have. It doesn’t mean anything except that I have access to things they do not, through no fault of my own or theirs.

Since most privileges we have were not asked for, I see nothing to be ashamed of for having them. I’m not ashamed I’m white, not ashamed I grew up with a father who taught me to use tools, not ashamed I’m male. It was not my doing that I should have any of these advantages, yet I have them all the same. It is much like having won the lottery without having bought a ticket.

But if you are fortunate enough to have more than others – more food, more advantages, more skill – it’s incumbent on you to use that for the benefit of those who don’t.

So I am not ashamed I am priviliged. I’m just ashamed of all the times I didn’t use those privileges to benefit folks who don’t have them.

Are you OK?

Hey dude. Are you OK?

That was one of the dozens of text messages I have gotten over the last few days as the water crisis in Jackson, MS, has made the headlines. Our already fragile water system was overwhelmed by the recent flooding, and now vast portions of the city have little to no water pressure.

But even before the flooding, we were under a month-long boil-water notice.

So, the short answer is that we are personally unharmed. We were not damaged in the flooding, and we have plenty of access to safe water.

But there is a longer answer.

I intentionally live in Jackson, MS.

That, in and of itself, is a political act. Jackson is an overwhelmingly majority Black city, surrounded by overwhelmingly majority white suburbs. The white people who live here have mostly decided to be the type of person who wants to live here.

The suburbs have good schools, good roads, and a nice tax base. We do not have any of those things. Nor is our water currently safe to drink.

When we moved here four years ago, we had a bevy of folks try to convince us to live in the majority white suburbs. But here is the thing: Deciding to live in a majority white space is also a political act.

So we live in Jackson. And we don’t have safe drinking water. We have the resources, personally, to manage this. We can afford drinking water. We have the flexibility, schedule-wise, to boil the water we need to boil. I just dropped a not small amount of money on a reverse osmosis water system to ensure that our drinking water, at least, will be safe to drink. That I can do all of that means only that I am privileged enough to have the resources to manage the catastrophe better than folks who don’t have those resources.

But 25% of Jackson residents live under the poverty line, so many folks here don’t have those resources. Parts of Jackson look and feel like the aftermath of a war. But the war – Mississippi against Jackson – is ongoing.

When a crisis hits, it is always the most vulnerable that feel it first. The hungry feel food shortages first. The elderly feel a healthcare crisis first. And Jackson is catching the infrastructure crisis before larger, better-funded cities do. But it’s coming.

In 1979, 65% of all new water and sewer treatment development was funded by the Federal Government. In 2020, that number was 7%. So it’s coming. It just caught us first.

As I write this, The White House, the Governor, and other places are all involved in trying to get us safe drinking water. And I really, really hope they do, because my city needs it. But it is not lost on me that this is not a new situation – the week we arrived here 4 years ago, the city was under a boil-water notice because of problems at the water plant.

And neither is it lost on me that churches all over Mississippi spend serious dollars to get safe drinking water for Black kids in other countries yet are content to let Jackson flounder.

So, we are unharmed, we Hollowells. But we are not OK. None of this is OK. The persistent racism and fear driving so many of Mississippi’s policies is not OK. The state legislature having countless opportunities to help, and refusing, is not OK. The infighting our own political leaders do is not OK. And the poverty pimps bilking the vulnerable is not OK.

None of it is OK.