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?
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.