How Racism Gets in the Water
Racism in the Flint Water Crisis is up close, and it goes way back. According to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, “The Flint Water Crisis was more than 75 years in the making.”
Then came the racist engineering of white flight to white-only suburbs. White flight yanked and tanked tax revenue; it left properties vacant; it thinned political influence, and it hiked the cost of water. The need for a new water source came from the price of water.
The blight from white flight also made the water crisis worse. Under large and long sections of vacant houses, the corrosive water slowed and stagnated. It accumulated even more toxins from the lead pipes.
The Flint Water Crisis is Jim Crow water. It’s the backwash in water that flows when home loans, money, and political clout go to white people alone. Today, Black people make up 57% of Flint and 40% of the city is below the federal poverty level. Racism made those numbers.
“The officials treated the residents like they treated the entire city.”
In her book, The Poisoned City, the reporter Anna Clark unfolds and lays flat all the receipts for the bad transactions in Flint. She writes, “Neglect, it turns out, is not a passive force in American cities, but an aggressive one.”
Between 2002 and 2014, the state of Michigan snatched $55 million in revenue sharing from Flint to serve the state’s budget. That $55 million could have paid Flint’s debt with money to spare.
After decades of depriving and deriding Flint, the state of Michigan put Flint under “emergency management.” That means an unelected emergency manager, appointed by the governor, has the absolute say in the city.
That emergency management turns a city into a colony as it disempowers local leaders and disenfranchises residents. The colonizer cuts corners for crops. That happened several times in Flint with the water.
In April 2014, a few days after Earth Day, the officials ruling over Flint switched Flint from Detroit’s water to the Flint River to save money.
The residents immediately called the water foul. The officials told the residents to relax because the water was fine. They lied. People died. People are living with lifetime medical issues.
The other official responses dismissed, discredited, blamed, and belittled residents. The officials treated the residents like they treated the entire city.
The officials only did something about the water when a few white women got media attention, when a white scientist published his findings, and when a non-Black pediatrician said the water was toxic.
“If you only move for complaints when they come from people who aren’t Black, it’s racist.”
None of that was a coincidence; it was typical. The officials ruling over Flint responded to the water crisis the way racists respond to racism.
The residents received responses like — “I see no proof; you don’t know what you’re talking about; I’m the expert; it worked for me; you’re paranoid, outside groups are getting to you; be positive; the system is fine; give it time; it’s temporary; we can’t afford to do anything else; those examples are anecdotal; correlation isn’t causation; the problem is on your end, and you need to do this or that to make it better.”
It was all wrong and all lies. The former Governor Rick Snyder later said the Flint Water Crisis is a failure of government at all levels. He should have called it racist. Name names and say why, sir!
“Collective failure” is the same as “All Lives Matter.” It’s generic. It’s nonspecific. It’s whitewashed. It’s color-blind. This crisis is specific and targeted.
If you fail mostly Black people, it’s racist. If you only move for complaints when they come from people who aren’t Black, it’s racist. And if you only recognize the efforts of non-Black people in the crisis when it’s time for awards, it’s racist.
It’s no surprise, the officials who were color-blind to discolored water were also color-blind to racism. And of course, the officials who said nothing about the lead in the water didn’t feel led to say it was all racist.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission also said in its report, “race played a role in the Flint Water Crisis precisely because it was never considered.”
Here’s my stomping point — when it comes to environmental hazards, racism leaves no room for error. Racism is already a big error; there’s no room for any more.
If policymakers and decision makers don’t wish to do harm, they must look for racism and deal with racism before, during, and after they institute policies and programs. Additionally, they must realize their responses to feedback and any arising issues may be racist too.
If policies and programs don’t counteract racism, then whatever harms come from them will be disparate and therefore racist. Whatever you put in and through a racist system will be racist.
That applies to algorithms, facial-recognition software, TSA scanners, self-driving cars, and whatever else people racistly invent and institute.
Policies and programs aren’t perfect. Decision makers make mistakes. But to avoid further harm they must work from the assumption of racism; they must deal with racism and not add to racism.
With America’s history and the present reality, when Black people say something is wrong, justice requires a fast response for a remedy. Anything less is typical of racism.
Right now, Flint is fighting. Starting from April 25, 2014, the water in Flint was vile and often discolored. The racism in Flint is the same except — racism is always clear to those who care or need to look and see.