Living Inside the Flint Water Crisis | Sojourners

Living Inside the Flint Water Crisis

Sign at UAW local asking for donations for Flint, Jan. 27
Sign at UAW local asking for donations for Flint, Jan. 27. Barbara Kalbfleisch /

A computer in the Flint Public Library said the book I was looking for on the early American church was in the religion section, but for the life of me, I couldn't find it. I was looking for Slave Religion, a history of the foundations of the black church. While I had been raised around Flint and had been living here for a few years at that point, I was just then realizing how little I knew about the city, and my neighbors and their history. I was starting to dig in. But why couldn't I find this book?

As it turns out, the reason I couldn't find the book also sheds light on the root issue driving the Flint Water Crisis.

I recoiled harshly when I heard suggested that white supremacy was at the core of the issues Flint had been dealing with for decades and continues to struggle with now. I knew what white supremacy was. Lynching, KKK, police dogs, etc. I didn’t think there was any way that my good intentions to help Flint had any white supremacist motivations. But that's where I, and to a large degree most white Christians, are wrong.

1950s-era white supremacy is easy to identify now. White supremacy in 2016 is much more of an elusive and invisible monster. The working definition I find helpful of white supremacy today is any time we deny that the original and unrepented sin of America is racism, live unaware that people of color still suffer disproportionately all around "us" (not knowing that "us" usually means "us white people"), and allow our lives to exist separate of these realities instead of leaning in to them.

When a community, like Flint, is struggling for years and then something happens to pique the interest of the media, and then rock stars, movie directors, and the world decide to come for a week or two to "fix us," white supremacy is visible. It's the feeling of obligation and calling to "fix" others regardless of their expressed or felt needs. In reaching past the plank in our eye of unrepented racial sin in order to remove the specks in the eyes of those living in the "inner city," white supremacy is visible.

Yes, emergency relief is important, and the people of Flint are struggling. But don't try to help while missing the connection between our struggle in Flint and your life choices. The water crisis is bad fruit on a plant whose seed was sown decades ago and which was fertilized, nurtured, and watered until it yielded the fruit of disaster today. Redrawing school districts to exclude minority neighbors, redlining mortgages, relocating black neighborhoods and forcibly purchasing black businesses for less than the price of vacant land for interstates, moving out of town in the name of finding "better" communities ... the list is long and unsurprising. When the free market allowed GM to take tens of thousands of jobs out of the community leaving a polluted river, superfund sites, and epic unemployment in its wake, it was part of a long line of abuses, not the beginning. Now, this plant that's been growing is yielding some bad fruit (it's also yielding some good fruit), and those indirectly responsible for its development point only to the bad fruit (like poisoned water or violence) and call it a national crisis while disavowing any connection to it. Instead, we must admit that we are all connected, even when we believe we are safely segregated.

When we demand new, shiny businesses in a "new" part of town and when we go to the "new" mall in town instead of the "other" mall, we are building the next Flint Water Crisis. It's OK to admit that. It's not OK to deny it as the normal functioning of our economic system and then cry out in shock when we see its effects. Such is the way of white supremacy: acting on a situation with the wrong posture from the wrong position, and not knowing it.

Which is why I couldn't find that book. Only in asking for help from library staff did I learn that it was in a completely different part of the library. It was in the African-American Literature wing. I hadn't even considered this possibility. I was in the wrong place with the wrong posture. My assumption was that the library was wrong, not that I was wrong. This was a moment where white supremacy still lived in me as it lives in the U.S. Ignorance, as white people, of our position in this country and how our posture of "knowing" and "leading" looks to those we don't know we are oppressing, who may not wish to be led, is today's white supremacy.

So, today in Flint, like me in the library, I encourage us white Christians to change our position and our posture and to seek new knowledge of who we are in the world that our ancestors have created. Listen, listen, listen. Don't seek to lead. Read. Ask. Don't defend. Be invited; don't impose. And then, once you've allowed God to do a new work in you, once you have repented for our collective plank and sought shalom for our country's legacy — then, maybe God will use you to help.

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