Flint, Michigan. While perhaps not nationally recognized as a large metropolitan area, Michigan’s fourth largest city is usually known for its roots in the automobile industry, its socioeconomic diversity, and its art scene. This reputation, unfortunately, is not the case any longer, and Flint now represents a not-so-subtle calamity that can be attributed to the failures of American politics. The situation in Flint needs no grandiose introduction, but there is value in highlighting what exactly is going on within the city’s borders for those who may be partially unaware.
To keep a long story short: the Michigan State Government decided that it would switch the local water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, at least only temporarily until it could create a new budgeting solution for how to provide tap water to its citizens during a time of financial hardships. This was not supposed to be a “long-term solution” to the problem, however. It eventually became the State Government’s only “solution.” Due to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality’s lack of efficient oversight, the pipes in Flint’s water infrastructure were not treated with anti-corrosive agents. Soon, tap water appeared brown and contained higher levels of lead than deemed safe for human consumption.
Because of this, Flint now faces a crisis that has rendered its tap water largely undrinkable, unusable, and utterly dangerous to its citizens. As a result, it has caused large, irreversible outbreaks of lead poisoning, especially in young children.
This crisis is a catastrophe of American politics on all fronts for two reasons: the State Government’s inconspicuous--though many would argue conspicuous--proliferation of racism and its glaring incompetence. Both of these themes have intertwined to create a disaster that the poor citizens of Flint must contend with.
The intersection of sociopolitical dynamics and the environment adds another dimension to this crisis in which racism is perpetuated by government officials. In the case of Flint, Governor Rick Snyder never mentions “race” or that the mishandling of the water crisis was due to the fact that Flint is predominantly African American and poor, but outright racism is not the only form of racism that exists. Systemic political decisions are rarely influenced by the minority groups of Flint. Even though the politician who decided to switch the water source was African American, the state government is run by a group of mostly white politicians, which means that public policies reflect their own interests.
As mentioned before, this situation is not clear “racism” in its denotive definition, but it appears that it is no coincidence that the Flint community was the victim of “environmental racism,” a term used to describe the idea that “poor communities and communities of color often experience disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards”. The situation in Flint highlights that this environmental racism goes hand-in-hand with the de facto segregation that places minority groups in areas that are environmentally mistreated. This particular idea is not novel in the minds of many people throughout Michigan. In an interview with the Huffington Post, the mayor of Lansing, Michigan, Virgil Bernero, claimed that “The response was muted. The state response was sluggish and irresponsible. That does have something to do with the people being voiceless”.
Bearing all this in mind, it seems that not-so-subtle racism is the most likely explanation for the indifference and incompetence on part of the Michigan state government. The incompetence is highlighted by critical decisions that were made by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality: the agency did not require the Flint plant to use the correct corrosion control and it threw out samples of water that may have alerted residents of Flint to lead poisoning earlier than anticipated. By the time the residents found out about the high levels of lead poisoning, it was far too late, and there were many people to blame at the state level, Gov. Snyder included.
Governor Snyder and the head of the EPA, Gina McCarthy, sat before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to testify and plead their cases for the disaster that happened in Flint. Much of the derision towards McCarthy and Snyder was bipartisan, and the members of the committee on the panel called for both to resign because of their incompetence. Whether the issue is bipartisan or not, it is clear that action must be taken, and responsibility for the crisis should be established, but this is not all that is required. The rehabilitation of Flint should be solely focused on providing aid and concrete solutions, not just accounts of culpability. It is imperative, above all else, that clean, drinkable water is distributed to the citizens of Flint immediately.
Yes, there is importance in punishing the perpetrators, but that’s not all that people of Flint deserve. The people of Flint and other areas affected by poisoned water deserve action by all who can help, whether it be on the federal, local, or even international levels. If there is anything that this crisis highlights, it’s that the government of Michigan has failed people of its own state and its own country. Flint, Michigan now represents a failure of humanity.
- James Sabia