Editors: Flint was no accident.

The water coming out of taps in Flint, Mich., has been a frightening orange-brown for more than a year now, but the official declaration of a state of emergency was made only last month. In April 2014, under the direction of state-appointed emergency managers, the financially distressed city switched from using water purchased from Detroit to drawing its water from the Flint River to save money. Corrosive water running through old pipes caused lead to leach into the drinking water. On Jan. 27 of this year, Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, said at least 200 children in Flint have elevated levels of lead in their blood, which can irreversibly damage developing brains.

Flint is not the only place with problems like this. Disproportionately, these places tend to be poor and black. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 found that both African-American children and poor children are almost twice as likely as white and nonpoor children to have high blood lead levels. The crisis in Flint makes the question unavoidable: What went wrong, and why?

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To ask that question and answer it honestly, the effects of historical and structural racism must be taken into account. Flint’s water crisis, while it may be directly attributable to comprehensive bureaucratic mismanagement, also worsened while residents complained and officials made excuses. It is difficult if not impossible to imagine a government allowing water to remain that color for more than a year for people with more pull, or a bigger megaphone, than the citizens of Flint. Empirical evidence, like that gathered in the C.D.C. report, shows that lead contamination and other environmental dangers are unequally distributed along racial lines.

Asked directly whether Flint was the victim of “environmental racism,” Governor Snyder denied the charge, and the emails his administration has released relating to the crisis show no discussion of race. But to conclude that the absence of overt racism means that racism has played no part in this tragedy betrays a failure of imagination. We have long since reached the point where the persistence of disparate racial impacts demands that we look for a related cause. Brentin Mock, of The Atlantic’s project CityLab (Jan. 26), writes that “Flint is only the latest episode in an ongoing American saga that has consistently found people of color fighting for basic rights like clean air and water” and getting results that are broadly worse than those enjoyed by the racial majority.

The uneven playing field and historical inequities of our urban infrastructure are not natural features; they developed historically, influenced both by patterns of migration from the South starting during Reconstruction and more recently by the practice of redlining, corralling black home buyers into less-desirable neighborhoods by controlling the availability of home financing. Redlining maps for Flint are part of the historical record. The concentration of poverty, its correlation to race and the subsequent economic, social and infrastructure crises experienced in these communities do not “just happen.” They may not have been deliberately planned, but they are not simply accidents of history.

If the United States hopes to grapple with these challenges and to improve the situations in these communities, then it should begin by admitting that they have significant racial components, in history, structure and effect. Environmental racism can be seen as a tragic inversion of the preferential option for the poor and the marginalized, a kind of “preferential neglect.” These problems are easier to ignore, take longer to be noticed and are more difficult to fix because the people who exercise power are not linked to these communities by history or by a common life. In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis cautioned that those with power “live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population” and warned that “this lack of physical contact and encounter…can lead to a numbing of conscience” (No. 49).

Given the history of this country, that lack of solidarity and numbness of conscience is all too often found across a racial divide. While the practical steps now underway to address the crisis in Flint are a necessary first step, it is necessary also to ask how to start looking for the next similar problem that is likely to cause surprise and dismay. 

One way to do that would be to focus not just on how to secure Flint’s water supply but also on how to give the community the agency and resources it needs to rehabilitate itself. Also required is a careful look at how both government officials and the national media ignored the crisis as it developed, while local media and residents were sounding the alarm. Perhaps the lessons learned in Flint can be applied to help other communities as well.

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Steve Perzan
2 years 2 months ago
If the child who drank the water was white or black it matters not -- there is no disproportion in its effects.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 2 months ago
“Capitalist society has lost the meaning of honor, and with it, the meaning of disgrace.” G. K. Chesterton The wealthiest 16,000 Americans now hold as much wealth as 75% of the world's population.
J Cosgrove
2 years 2 months ago
But it is just the opposite of capitalism that caused the Flint crisis. It is a 100% government debacle.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 2 months ago
No matter how many times the GOP cuts taxes and government, it won't make Flint water any better.
J Cosgrove
2 years 2 months ago
This is an incredible OP. It says that overt racism is the cause of Flint's problems.
To ask that question and answer it honestly, the effects of historical and structural racism must be taken into account… But to conclude that the absence of overt racism means that racism has played no part in this tragedy betrays a failure of imagination.
Are the editors accusing white and black Democrats of racism? After all they have governed the poor black urban areas of the country for over 50 years. Here is the Flint emergency manager, a Democrat appointed by Governor Snyder. http://on.freep.com/1PWL1nh I would suggest that you look at all that went on. One of the major causes of the crisis was an attempt by the Republican government to provide a major jobs project for Flint, namely the building of a new water supply for Flint. https://reason.com/blog/2016/01/25/the-flint-water-crisis-is-the-result-of
Liberals are wrongly blaming Flint's lead poisoning crisis on austerity measures imposed on the city by a fiscallyconservative Republican Governor Rick Snyder, as I wrote last week. (Snyder had appointed an emergency manager in 2011 to help the city balance its books and avoid bankruptcy.) However, I didn't quite realize just how wrong they were. As it turns out, the debacle is the result of Snyder's efforts to stimulate the local economy—the exact opposite of the liberal line.
Some other articles on the Flint problem http://bit.ly/1SvuNlK http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/01/22/flint-water-lead-poison-michigan-health-column/79019134/ https://reason.com/blog/2016/01/21/the-government-poisoned-flints-waterso-s It will probably take awhile to sort everything out and there will be blame on a lot of people but maybe the blame goes back 45-50 years to see what started the decline in a lot of major US cities.
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 2 months ago
The Editors' tracing of this event back to the Reconstruction era, and blaming it more proximately on "environmental racism...lack of solidarity and numbness of conscience..(calling for a) careful look at how both government officials and the national media ignored the crisis..." left me bewildered. I don't begin to know how America Magazine, as a national media participant, ignored this crisis while local citizens and newspapers were addressing it. But to try to get the other issues raised by Editors down into a shape and size I could deal with, I did a little research: FiveThirtyEight.com report. http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-went-wrong-in-flint-water-crisis-michigan/. MLive Review/Timeline and link to collection of news reports. http://www.mlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/02/where_blame_leads_so_far_in_fl.html#incart_story_package. Detroit Free Press re Darnell Earley, Feb. 3, 2016. http://www.freep.com/story/news/politics/2016/02/02/subpoena-issued-ex-flint-emergency-manager-earley/79729216/. To me, this begins to look like some government bureaucrats failed to do the jobs they were hired and paid to do--pure and simple. Then tried to hide the truth as it unfolded. What the Emergency Manager knew, and when he knew it, is yet to be determined. Ditto for the Governor, and maybe others. I am surprised that there is not more attention paid to the humanitarian efforts of the local pediatricians who spent long nights, without compensation, analyzing blood test results, and the researcher who paid for water sample collection kits out of his own pocket--acts of gratuitous philanthropy, solidarity, etc. We fail to acknowledge that, or to see the joy in it. Forgive me for not being able to grasp the big picture described by the Editors, and focusing on individual actions and accountability.
William Rydberg
2 years 2 months ago
My grandparents were married in Flint and one of Aunties was born there. They moved to Montreal because it was less of a boomtown, economically more stable, and they had family there. Flint was the Place to be for quick money if you were a Stonecutter like Gramps. One would figure that the monies extracted in Taxes over the many years should have assured at least a basic level of sustained water security in Flint?
John Walton
2 years 2 months ago
Sebring OH has a similar high lead content -- the Village is 98.7% white -- go figure.
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 2 months ago
"But to conclude that the absence of overt racism means that racism has played no part in this tragedy betrays a failure of imagination. We have long since reached the point where the persistence of disparate racial impacts demands that we look for a related cause." These opinions are right out of the Obama administration's racial dominated playbook and could have been or probably were ghost written by the DOJ, HUD and other Departments all of which are using racism and disparate impact to enforce racial quotas on America. Just ask the residents of Westchester County New York who have been subjected to the bureaucratic wrath of HUD using disparate impact as the club. To date HUD has lost several court cases. So now in your editorial opinion racism is or can be defined now not by facts but by imagination and by some bureaucrats idea of what the proper ratio racial make-up should be. Since democrats have been in power in both the State and local governments for many years any racism or disparate impact in Flint is the result of their policies.
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 2 months ago
For the record the racial breakdown of Flint Michigan was: Flint 2014 Racial make-up White 37.4% Black/African American 56.6% http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/26/2629000.html It is incomprehensible that the media and the editors of America fail to do due diligence before drawing conclusions based, not on facts, but on political ideology. The lead problem in Flint was suffered by all black,white and various others and was caused by old lead pipes, incompetent politicians and government "experts".
J Cosgrove
2 years 2 months ago
The interesting thing is that the racism is from white Democrats who have run the big city governments all over the country in the last 50 years and whose polices led to the steep decline in the fortunes of large black population segments. So it is good to see the editors of America are on record accusing the Democrats of racism. I agree with their assessment on this.
charles harrison
2 years 2 months ago
Put the word "racism" to one side, and just keep in mind that, in Michigan, as in the rest of the country, members of the black population are disproportionately poor, for whatever reason. In the US since 1981, and in Michigan since 1992, fiscal policy has been largely driven by a voodoo economics/starve the beast ideology that has the practical effect of providing a "preferential option for the rich" and decreasing the revenue available for government to function, particularly in poorer areas. This is the obvious cause of what happened in Flint, plus a state government culture that saw the people expressing concern as constant complainers and politically-motivated troublemakers. Blaming the Democrats who have to try and provide government services in urban areas with no tax base seems unfair.
J Cosgrove
2 years 2 months ago
A couple things: First , the editors used the term "overt racism." There is no one to point to except Democrats for US urban areas. Oh, Governor Snyder is the only Republican in sight in Flint so is this an attempt to associate the cause with him. There is guilt there but it is so widespread and actually includes a lot of black Democrats. Snyder was trying to provide a jobs program for Flint to help them out which is why the water switch took place. That is the root of the specific problem. Doesn't sound like this is a racist act. Second , why does Flint and other areas have depressed economics. The mention of "voodoo economics/starve the beast ideology" is an indication of just pulling things out of the air to say something negative. There are many areas of the country that have prospered while Flint and other urban areas declined. Maybe it is something they have been doing wrong for several years. One cause for the impoverishment is Public pensions. See http://bit.ly/1S7knIp http://bit.ly/1PrZORi You will find counter articles saying it is not the public pension costs. So will we actually find out anytime. Probably not. It is all politics. I doubt that a "preferential option for the rich" cause by the Fed's quantitative easing is the cause of Flint's problems. I would look elsewhere. One place to look is Democrat policies since the 1930's that have devastated black communities. In the 1930's black children born out or wedlock was about the same as white children but by the 1960's reach 25-30% and by the 1980's after the Great Society reached over 70%. That is where I would look for the problem. It is not something that can be fixed with any amount of money or training programs. And it is all due to Democratic policies and attitudes.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 2 months ago
Why do cars get better water than Flint residents? Back in October, 2014 the Flint GM plant stopped using Flint water, because it corroded car parts. There’s government for the people and there’s government for the “tax cut class”. Michigan’s GOP administration and GOP-controlled Legislature has cut more than $2 billion in corporate taxes. Even the father of capitalism, Adam Smith, said, “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members is poor and miserable.”
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 2 months ago
Mr Harrison, "Put the word "racism" to one side," is the advice you should be directing to the authors of this editorial and almost every media outlet not to myself and others who are pointing out the ideology of racism is always the first charge, accusation or excuse of the liberals. Why not search for the real reasons that Flint, Detroit and other cities in Michigan that once were the centers of America's automobile industry have been reduced to poverty level existence and place the blame where it belongs, unions and union financed State and local politicians who made the State financially unfriendly for the Japanese, German and even American manufacturers who chose other States for their plants. Ask yourself politicians from which party have been in charge of Michigan and its cities?
charles harrison
2 years 2 months ago
I think we were talking about why poor people have been made to drink and bathe in contaminated water for this long. If you don't think that it bears a direct relationship to the fact that they are poor and (coincidentally in your book) predominantly black, I don't know what to tell you.
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 2 months ago
Mr Harrison, Not sure what, ((coincidentally in your book) ), refers to and the thrust of the subject editorial was not that poor people black, white and others were affected but that the problem was the result of racism and disparate impact instead of governmental bureaucratic incompetence. Apparently the editors and others form their opinions from watching CNN, MSNBC and the former big three networks.
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 2 months ago
Mr. Harrison-- The chronology in your comment contradicts the findings of Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton, who shows in his book The Great Escape that income inequality also started to increase in the mid-1970s—not 1980 or 1981. Your chronology also ignores the findings of Stanford University professor Alexander J. Field, who writes in A Great Leap Forward that the strong post-war GDP numbers were driven by technologies developed in the 1920s and early -30s meeting pent up demand after years of Depression and war. Field, Deaton and other economists agree that this extraordinary growth fizzled in the 1970s. In 1976, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter proposed adding the inflation rate to the unemployment rate to calculate the “misery index.” That year the misery index was 12.5 percent. In 1980 it was in excess of 20 percent, with inflation was at 13.5 percent and unemployment at 7 percent, and unemployment had been stubbornly high for six years. The former heartland of American industry—including cities like Flint—had become known as the Rust Belt. If we want to revisit history for the source of our troubles, let’s at least get the history right.
charles harrison
2 years 2 months ago
I was speaking more generally about the attitude towards the funding of governmental services as manifested in the public policy decisions that have brought us to this point, not about whether the ongoing trend of increasing economic inequality started in the 70's or 80's. I'll admit that the dates I selected may have been a little overly pointed.
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 2 months ago
Thanks for clarifying. But the Flint water department was adequately funded (see news articles under my comment above) before and after the change in water supplies. As discussed in the news articles, after the switch, water treatment employees failed to follow well-known treatment protocols which are used for similar water, via similar mains, in many other cities, with satisfactory results. When citizens noticed poor water quality (resulting form inadequate treatment) they were told by their own emergency manager, and by Michigan's Dept of Water Quality (adequately staffed and funded) that the water met all appropriate standards. Lack of funds was never an issue. Government employees not doing the jobs they were hired and paid to do was the issue, as was the emergency manager's attitude that murky, foul smelling water was acceptable, as long as lab employees stated it met purity standards. Why the city emergency manager, who clearly has access to the governor, did not insist that the employees correct the coloration and odor, (which would have led them to discover the lead, and the inadequate treatment) is an open question. For those who believe racism is at the heart of this, please note that the city emergency manager who made the decision to switch the water supply, and subsequently dismissed complaints about the color and odor of the water, is a black man, an attorney, so I am inclined to doubt that his actions or inactions were racially motivated. Some aspects of the manager's actions are still to be clarified, as are some questions about the governor or his office. But insufficient funding, or public policy, or attitudes toward funding government services, were never the issues here. Attitudes of bureaucratic lethargy and unresponsiveness in individual public workers were the issues here, pure and simple. The results of such lethargy and unresponsiveness are indeed tragic, especially for the children involved. Restoring a proper water supply, and providing proper treatment and compensation for those affected, are going to be expensive for taxpayers at one level or another. But if we ignore facts, or bend them to fit a political or social bias, that does not help us move forward. It serves only to obscure the realities that must be dealt with, and to create division. That is not a path to justice.
charles harrison
2 years 2 months ago
I sense that you have no idea what an emergency manager under Michigan law is, who he works for and what he is supposed to do. The "emergency" is fiscal. It is all about money and the lack thereof, not about making sure you get it right for the people who live there. You are correct that the problem would have been avoided if the civil servants hadn't screwed up, but the unresponsiveness was what happens when you run government like a business.
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 2 months ago
In a business setting, customers have options to go elsewhere, and running a business means keeping customers supplied with goods they value, at a price they are willing to pay--or they go elsewhere. Competition is a powerful antidote to inertia and complacency. This unresponsiveness occurred in a monopoly situation, which was in this matter not operated as a business. As the news articles also point out, the cost of making this right is going to far exceed the cost of doing it right from the beginning. So, if as you suggest, being the emergency manager "is all about the money and the lack thereof", these guys sure missed that part of the job. Could that be why they are not in business?
charles harrison
2 years 2 months ago
"Signs of trouble at MDEQ, years before Flint water crisis In 2010, a federal audit portrayed MDEQ as a department beset by budget cuts, staff shifts and limited resources, and willing to take regulatory shortcuts in safeguarding Michigan's water. The agency's Drinking Water Program had just seen its annual budget slashed to roughly $1.5 million, down $300,000 from the previous fiscal year, said the audit, conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Frequent hiring freezes have impacted Michigan for about ten years," the report noted. "This has made it difficult to replace positions." Bans on contract services and a "cumbersome" employee hiring process didn't help, either. Funding cuts forced MDEQ's Drinking Water Program to fill vacancies "with staff from other programs that have been cut or eliminated," the audit said. "While this practice preserves jobs, it decreases the technical knowledge of staff and requires tremendous resources to train these staff."" THIS STUFF IS NOT COMPLICATED.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 2 months ago
“The Great Left Behind” perhaps would better describe Flint. Flint may signal a democracy compromised by an extractive elite. Angus Deaton’s book also notes, “…the more extreme the economic inequality, the greater the threat to democracy.”
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 2 months ago
Did outside pressure have any role? 1800 earthquakes perhaps can illustrate one scenario. Oklahoma for years annually averaged less than two earthquakes (3.0 magnitude or greater) and then the total over a seven-year period (early 2009 through February 5, 2016) jumped to over 1,800. The number of Oklahoma oil fracking sites with horizontal drilling grew dramatically over that same the period. The Oklahoma Geological Survey was reluctant to discuss a connection between earthquakes and Big Oil. Why? See: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-30/big-oil-pressured-scientists-over-fracking-wastewater-s-link-to-quakes
J Cosgrove
2 years 2 months ago
Here is one of the best synopsis of what happened in Flint: http://bit.ly/1SbqImf A summary from this article
The Recap Flint’s elected leadership makes what is actually a solid, sound decision that will, in the long run, save the city millions of dollars and give it more control over its destiny – and, because it positions Flint as a wholesale supplier of water, possibly enhance revenues for them. Detroit Water Board decides to be spoiled and pissy and leaves Flint with no good options for the two years before its pipeline is built. Flint’s leadership and GOP-appointed EFM make a well-deliberated decision to draw water from the Flint River. Flint’s water staff – the people in Flint who are the experts on this sort of thing – apparently aren’t up to the task. And the people they count on to oversee and help them … The Michigan DEQ, is completely asleep at the switch. And once they discover their mistake, they lie about it and ask Flint to help them lie. US EPA is aware of a problem, but apparently trusted the kids playing in the DEQ sandbox to fix things. Personally, I think Detroit needs to be held accountable for starting the snowball down the hill. And I think there are people in the DEQ who should be prosecuted for reckless endangerment and fraud. The Governor? His accountability lies in the creation of the corporate culture that allowed DEQ’s hubris to let it happen. The Detroit Water Board members, I’m guessing, aren’t Republicans. The Flint water department staff who were in over their heads weren’t Republicans. The DEQ staff is probably a mix.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 2 months ago
Michigan businesses got a $1.7 billion tax savings. Did Flint’s water bill go down $1.7 billion? That may be how capitalism works, but not democracy.
J Cosgrove
2 years 2 months ago
I do not think you understand how capitalism and government works. I suggest you read about Public Choice theory http://bit.ly/1V1QQOt An average bureaucrat is just as selfish as the typical consumer and does not really have the public's benefit at heart.
Two insights follow immediately from economists’ study of collective choice processes. First, the individual becomes the fundamental unit of analysis. Public choice rejects the construction of organic decision-making units, such as “the people,” “the community,” or “society.” Groups do not make choices; only individuals do. The problem then becomes how to model the ways in which the diverse and often conflicting preferences of self-interested individuals get expressed and collated when decisions are made collectively. Second, public and private choice processes differ, not because the motivations of actors are different, but because of stark differences in the incentives and constraints that channel the pursuit of self-interest in the two settings.
So called public servants make decisions based on their own self interest not those of the community or state or country. Adam Smith pointed out that free market capitalism (there are several forms of capitalism) leads to moral behavior because it forces each of the two persons in the transaction to consider the other especially the seller. It is when this relationship it upset by stacking the deck in the favor of one over the other that leads to distortions in economic activity and bad results for the common good. Richard Epstein at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University has a very cogent piece on Flint that lays out the distortions in the relationship between the government and the public in the policing of environmental issues. http://www.hoover.org/research/flint-fiasco
Henry George
2 years 2 months ago
Dear America Magazine, Please note that most of the people who could have first done anything about this fiasco in Flint were "African Americans" and "Democrats" at that. Why in the world do you refer to anyone by the tincture of their skin - that referencing is innately racist. The "Poor" in this country are treated like chattel. Does not matter what the colour of their skin is or what "Race" they are. How this whole disaster could go on for almost a year and government officials did nothing about it is what you want to be concerned about - by the way why did it take the Media so long to report on this - it could not be that the people in Flint are largely poor is it ? I suggest that the Staff of America Magazine embrace what they claim to believe and move out of their Manhattan digs and move to the poorest part of Newark as true witness to what they claim to believe.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 2 months ago
Flint has economic inequality as noted in Laudato Si. A trashed environment (the polluted Flint river), Michigan’s $1.7 billion tax cut for corporations and all of Flint, including the poor, left behind. Add Flint's many people of color to police shootings and the high minority prison population and yes, it’s structural racism. Unintended perhaps, but undeniable and hardly aligned with founding fathers vision that “all men are created equal”.
James Richard
2 years 2 months ago
I think playing the race card on this issue, only further exacerbates the problem. Flint is going the way of Detroit. Hi crime have driven the middle and upper class out of the city, leaving a revenue vacuum which can't be made up. Understand one important thing here, poor people don't create jobs and opportunity, but rather that middle and upper classes of society who take the risk of investing in business. No one will risk starting a business in a high crime area. So, if you want to create jobs, you have to create an environment that attracts investors into the area. Unfortunately, many of the cities across the nation are beyond attracting investors.

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