The headlines coming out of the town of Flint, Michigan in these days are horrifying. It all began in 2010, when the people of Michigan elected the Republican Rick Snyder to be their governor. Snyder had promised to help the State’s communities in rough financial waters. He passed a law that allowed “emergency managers” – unelected officials – to take over the steering wheel of troubled cities and school districts. These managers often ordered sharp cuts, seeking to improve the community’s’ finances.
Something in the water
In 2013, the City Council approved plans to build a pipeline to nearby Lake Huron for its water supply – before then, Flint had paid the city of Detroit to supply it with water. But the pipeline was not to be finished before 2017 – leaving the question of where the city would get its water from in the meantime. The possibility of switching to the notoriously dirty Flint River as an interim solution was discussed, but the then-“emergency manager” overseeing the city’s finances was worried about the quality of the water.
In 2014, however, a different emergency manager chose to use the Flint River, despite the fact that the car company General Motors was using it as a dumping ground. Residents of Flint were baffled, but the decision was swiftly implemented, and the consequences could be seen almost immediately: the people of Flint complained that the water looked dirty and that it had a strange smell and taste. Tests revealed that the amount of iron in the Flint River was unusually high, but that was not the biggest issue: many of the water lines in Flint are made of lead, and because the authorities failed to treat the water properly, the lead was leaking into the water.
The people of Flint, Michigan were drinking water that put their health at risk. City and State officials received complaints, but failed to react. So the water kept running through the pipelines and the people of Flint kept drinking it, showering in it, cooking their food with it. That is, until a group of dedicated individuals put a stop to it. In August 2015, a team of scientists found increased levels of lead in the residents of Flint. When they first published their results, State officials dismissed them; the latter kept repeating what they had been telling the skeptical population of Flint for the previous sixteen months: trust us, the water is safe. Nothing to worry about.
Mona Hanna-Attisha disagreed. The physician working at a clinic in Flint kept seeing worried parents bringing in children with hair loss and rashes, and she knew something was wrong. The pediatrician alerted the public.
The State still insisted on its version of the story. Hanna-Attisha was spreading hysteria, officials said. For one week, they attacked the doctor’s claims; then, they admitted she was right. In October, the State switched back to its old water source for Flint, but the damage was done: lead kept leaking into the water, and the 100,000 residents of the town had been drinking it for one and a half years.
The demographics of betrayal
How could this happen? How could state officials abandon, betray the people they were elected to serve in such a callous way? When the news reached national levels, some pointed their finger at the demographics of Flint: 57% of the inhabitants are black, and 40% live below the poverty line. Critics of the State’s reaction to the crisis wondered if the response would have been quicker had Flint been a wealthy, white-majority suburb. The notion that State officials had known about the dangerous quality of the water is hard to reject: on January 28th 2016, a number of documents were made public that proved that city officials had been supplied with bottled water and coolers in their offices in January 2015, months before the public had been informed about the problems with the tap water.
As of now, Flint is in a state of emergency. Michigan authorities, the Federal Government, charities, and a number of celebrities are bringing bottled water into the city. But this isn’t the first time the people of Flint have had to face such hardships. The story of Flint, Michigan, is a story of betrayal, of being written off by politicians and executives.
After reading current headlines, you might be shocked to hear that the residents of Flint have been being poisoned since 2014. Well, if it only were since 2014. The people of this American town have actually been being poisoned for five decades, in one way or another. Flint, dubbed the “Vehicle City”, was the site of a major General Motors production plant. In 1966, residents of Flint’s North End neighborhood complained at a State Civil Rights hearing about the thick smoke emitted by the plant producing Buick cars. North End was, unsurprisingly, a part of town mostly inhabited by African-Americans. Its residents could not escape the pollution they were exposed to: racial discrimination in real estate and housing kept them trapped in North End. While the residents complained, the factory was dumping over 2 million gallons of waste into the Flint river – each day.
After decades of polluting the community, General Motors moved out, in 1985. Announcing major layoffs, the company decided to move its production to Mexico, where labor was cheaper. The biggest employer in town was suddenly gone – leaving the city devastated. Thousands and thousands of workers lost their jobs.
This chapter in the city’s history is documented in a movie by the enfant terrible of American documentary filmmaking, Michael Moore – a native of Flint. In Roger & Me, Moore sets out to track down General Motors boss Roger B. Smith and confront him about the thousands of workers he fired in Flint.
Flint lost 9 out of 10 jobs at the height of its industrial production. Poverty and unemployment soared. The crime rate went through the roof: until recently, Flint was America’s capital of violent crime. The town became a symbol of deindustrialization, of a once-great city in decay. For those not affected, there is a morbid attraction to the slow death of Flint: Youtube is filled with videos of depressing Flint neighborhoods with abandoned, boarded-up houses slowly falling apart. As of 2015, Flint held the tragic record of being one of the poorest cities in America.
And Flint is not an isolated case. There is a pattern of communities being left alone, written off.
Let us just follow the trail of Darnell Earley. After making the consequential decision of making the river Flint the city’s water source, Earley went on to become an “emergency manager” for a Detroit school district in financial trouble. His performance in his new position was as dismal as his reign in Flint. Teachers alerted the public about the harrowingly poor state of school equipment and classrooms – including falling debris, freezing cold temperatures and bacteria. These conditions put the health and safety of both staff and students at risk; there are worrying reports about chronic fatigue, respiratory problems, stomach pain and other health issues. Teachers have protested the situation by mass “sick-outs” in recent weeks. The school district Earley managed into chaos was 82% African-American, with a poverty rate of 39.3%. Sound familiar?
There are many Flints
But the story goes far, far beyond Flint, Detroit or even the state of Michigan. There is a term for it: “environmental racism”. According to an expert on environmental justice, Prof. Robert Bullard, when politicians have to find locations for unwanted neighbors like waste plants, they tend to go with the “path of least resistance”, which generally means dumping these facilities in poverty-stricken and minority neighborhoods and towns. There is, for instance, an 85-mile stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, morbidly known as “Cancer Alley”. It is home to countless factories and oil refineries and is predominantly inhabited by African-Americans. Also, its population presents an unnaturally high rate of cancer and other diseases that can be traced back to the chemicals emitted by the plants.
Louisiana is also home to the small town of St. Joseph. Over one third of the inhabitants of St. Joseph live below the poverty line, and 77% are African-American. The people of St. Joseph have been boiling their chalky, dirty tap water for most of the last four years.
Environmental racism has a long history, and is intricately connected to other social inequalities. In 1982, the primarily African-American community of Warren County, North Carolina, rose up to protest dumping waste containing the hazardous chemical PCB in their area. In 1983, the Government Accountability Office, a branch of Congress, investigated dangerous waste disposal sites in eight southeastern states and found that three out of four of such sites had been placed in poor and predominantly African-American communities. In 1990, the mostly African-American citizens of Morrisonville, Louisiana, had to be relocated because a Dow Chemical plant had polluted their neighborhoods.
Flint. Detroit. Morrisonville. St. Joseph. “Cancer Alley”. Warren County. And it does not end here.
In the Manchester area of Houston, Texas, a high-risk chemical facility threatens the health of its neighbors – 85% of which are Latinos. Childhood leukemia, asthma, and bronchitis plague the people of Manchester at above-average levels.
In Richmond, California, housing prices are low – because nobody who can afford better would choose to live here. The town is 26% African-American, 40% Latino – and surrounded by oil refineries and pollution sites. Richmond has the highest asthma-related hospitalization rate in its county.
Do you see pattern yet?
Children born into poverty and pollution
Communities like Flint have fallen by the wayside, neglected, left to fall apart. So systemic are the inequities that ZIP codes are more likely to determine people’s health than their genetic background. African-Americans are twice as likely to live near facilities that process dangerous chemicals. Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code is 84% African-American. But officially, there is no problem: while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established an Office of Civil Rights some twenty years ago, it has thrown out nine out of ten complaints, and has never formally found a civil rights violation.
Whether the EPA acknowledges it or not, environmental racism is real, and it is cursing future generations: African-American children are three-times more likely to test positive for highly elevated lead levels in the blood. They were also four times more likely than white kids to live in poverty in 2013. Latino families are also disproportionately affected. Countless studies have proven there is a relation between poverty and health issues in children.
Where racism, poverty and pollution come together, children lose their futures. And America fails.