How would you feel if you realized your children’s water was being poisoned, and your government didn’t seem to care? That’s the story of the parents of 8,000 mostly poor and black children in Flint, Mich., (which means most all of the children in urban Flint) that has finally hit our media front pages. The evening news I am watching as I write warns the parents of Flint not to bathe their young children in city water.
But the fact that most Americans realize this would never happen in affluent white Michigan suburbs (or any other white affluent communities in our country), still doesn’t penetrate our very souls. This fundamental contrast between black and white experiences in Michigan, just north of my home town of Detroit, points to the structural racism that is still the primary moral contradiction of American life. The news about Flint is just the most recent consequence of America’s Original Sin, the title of the new book we have just launched.
The poisoning of the majority-black population of the city is a product of a system failing the people of Flint on many levels over a long period of time. To really start unpacking the historical roots of the crisis, you have to go back to slavery itself, which debased the humanity and devalued the lives of black people from well before our nation's founding; followed by the Jim Crow era of legal segregation, discrimination, and violence against black Americans, which resulted in early 20th century migrations of black people from the segregated south to urban manufacturing centers of the northern United States. When they got there, they found cities without legal segregation, yet with de facto segregation and discrimination alive and well in both white attitudes and systems. The arrival and growth of black populations in northern cities was followed shortly thereafter by white flight to the suburbs, aided by discriminatory housing policies that effectively prevented the vast majority of black people from joining them and blocked the financing of black homes even in the cities.
As manufacturing jobs left cities like Detroit and Flint over the years, unemployment soared, property values declined, and the people who remained found themselves trapped in poverty in cities whose tax revenue was eclipsed by the services these cities are responsible for providing for their citizens. The result? Drastically inferior employment prospects, inferior education, both leading to higher crime, and inferior health outcomes for people of color in many urban centers across the country. Racial ghettos, it must be said and understood, have never been an accident, but are the results of public policy. This is a necessarily short but accurate explanation for a very complex confluence of systems that together represent structural racism. In my new book, I explain in greater depth how some of this came to be, the history behind it, and the moral challenge it presents especially to people of faith.
So what does all of this have to do with Flint being poisoned? Well, in 2012, the state of Michigan, under the leadership of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, passed a law giving the state expanded powers to appoint emergency managers to step in and run cities, towns, and school systems dealing with financial crises. That law was then invoked in several cities across the state, including Detroit and Flint.
In April of 2014, Flint’s emergency town manager decided that rather than renew a contract with Detroit to continue receiving drinking water from Detroit’s system, Flint would instead draw water from the Flint River, a measure that it was thought would save the town $5 million. Not long afterward, residents began noticing their water looked, smelled, and tasted funny. People were getting rashes, and they were concerned about bacteria. The city government had to issue periodic “boil water” advisories to residents because of the bacteria. The water was treated to eliminate the bacteria, but the larger problem remained undetected.
The major issue with Flint River water, it turns out, is that it is corrosive, especially to old piping systems, to the point that lead was leaching into Flint’s water supply from April 2014 to October 2015, when the city finally reconnected to Detroit water after the revelations about lead levels came to light. The long-term damage done to the health of residents, especially to the brains and crucial development of children, is painfully incalculable — and it will take many years before we fully know the impact. What we do know is that at several points during 2014 and 2015, concerns were raised about the quality of the water, and because of Flint’s status as a town in emergency receivership of the state, because of mistakes and/or neglect by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency, and because of a seeming lack of urgency from the governor’s office or Flint’s succession of governor-appointed emergency managers, lead-poisoned water continued to flow from Flint's taps for more than a year. To put it simply, figuring out the problem of Flint’s water was not a priority for the governments responsible for protecting Flint’s people.
As parents, we would never want to put up with discolored, funny-smelling, bad-tasting water for our kids. Government at all levels is expected to ensure our air is safe to breathe and our water safe to drink. It’s one of the reasons we pay taxes, and it’s become part of the social contract. However, in areas where generational poverty and municipal fiscal instability are realities, it is disproportionately poor people of color who bear the health impacts of things like old pipes, corrosive water, lead paint, bad schools, and so many other issues. The fact that the city is poor, is mostly black, and had an unelected town manager making cost-cutting decisions regardless of the will of its people paints a grim but not unfamiliar picture.
Again, we all know instinctively that if an issue of water quality came up in a mostly white, mostly affluent suburb anywhere in this country, it would be dealt with swiftly and decisively. But we now know that was not the result for the majority black and poor population of Flint. This contrast is a fundamental moral issue. The fact that we all on some level know these facts and many white Americans tacitly accept them, must become unacceptable to all of us. The issues that gave rise to this particular crisis may be complicated, but this simple truth is not.
So the answer of white Americans to the facts of racism must no longer be, “But I am not a racist.” If we are oblivious to the racism still in our social systems, we can’t deny our complicity with it. The best answer to continual denials from white Americans of being a racist is this: Racism is in the air that we breathe and the water we drink. So let’s change the water — and the air.