Michigan has become a state on the forefront of emergency management legislation. While there are some similar systems in place in New York City, Michigan has taken it to a new level by giving all of the power to a single person rather than to a board, like in New York City. Given the recent economic recession, unemployment rates, housing crisis and all of the rippling consequences, this is an era in need of thoughtful and careful financial management. Electing Governor Rick Snyder who ran on a promise of running the state government like a business seemed like a great idea to many Michiganders. In some ways it was. Snyder has created a budget surplus in his time in office but he also significantly expanded the emergency financial management policy. This paper explores how the system of emergency managers is a perpetuation of structural racism because it is targeting majority black communities, creating harmful environments for black Michigan residents and infringes on those citizen’s Constitutional and International Human Rights.
Since its creation, emergency managers have been assigned to nine different cities and four public school systems. Those cities and school districts are: Flint, Hamtrack, Detroit, Detroit Public Schools, Benton Harbor, Allen Park, Highland Park, Highland Park Schools, Muskegon Heights Schools, Pontiac, Ecorse and Three Oaks Village. Many of those cities end up having multiple cycles of emergency managers with seemingly little benefits or solutions being made. Even more concerning, all of those added to the list are municipalities with a majority black population. “In the past decade, over half of African Americans in Michigan—compared with only 2 percent of whites—have lived under emergency management. [Emergency Managers] are supposed to take over cities based on a neutral evaluation of financial circumstances—but majority-white municipalities with similar money problems have not been taken over” (Steamster). In fact, there has been a decided effort to prevent white communities from needing emergency managers by creating other legal alternatives.
Republican state legislators Cindy Denby and Bill Rogers co-sponsored a law that would give a second option to financially struggling communities, specifically Livingston County and townships within it; state aid. The county and specifically Hardy Township, where Denby was supervisor and Rogers was Livingston County Commission Chair, was in severe debt. In an attempt to encourage development, they created a system that borrowed a lot of money upfront for development projects that would slowly be paid back mostly through taxes (Savage). Under the then supervisor Denby, the township and county approved a startling number of these bonds, called Special Assessment Districts (SADs), sometimes allowing new ones before old ones were completed (Sava). Then the 2008-2009 recession and housing collapse brought the whole system down, leaving unfinished projects, land that is not worth the cost of development and a large amount a debt without a way to pay it off.
Denby and Roger worked together to find a solution to this problem. The pair’s first two bills were unsuccessful, but the third attempt was not. In 2012 Governor Rick Snyder signed Public Acts 284-288 into state law establishing emergency financial relief under the Emergency Municipal Loan Act (Savage). The previous versions restricted the state aid to only debt from SADs which would have excluded places like Benton Harbor from being eligible and geared the state aid for more affluent areas. The reason the third attempt was the successful one was in large part due to Denby, Rogers and now with Mark Ouimet expanding the bill to include school districts and other government entities not in debt because of SADs. Even though these communities are in trouble due to fiscal mismanagement on the part of their government leaders, they, unlike Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac and other Michigan communities, would like to receive a state bailout, not a takeover of their town by a state-appointed emergency manager (Savage). Hardy Township was one of the first to apply when the law passed but was turned down in 2012 for their request of five million dollars. The denial was “due to the fact that they currently don’t have a deficit, which was a requirement of the program” (Savage). Unless there are other ways to pay off their debt, they would need to reapply for state aid or they too could be facing an emergency manager.
The greatest injustice in the laws being changed to service mostly white areas — Livingston County is 96.7% white — is summarized well by Livingston County Democratic Party Chair Judy Daubenmier:
“This special assessment debt was entirely a self-inflicted problem. The townships and county did not have to get involved in financing water and sewer for private developers. They chose to. This is unlike a school district that has seen its property tax collections fall because of home foreclosures, for example. Livingston County chose to do this and got caught. Now they want a bailout so none of its townships is taken over by an emergency manager” (Savage).
So while other black majority areas suffering from financial problems from things like state educational fund cutting, housing crisis and the flight of the auto industry have no authority or ability to hold accountable those in charge, white majority communities are applying for bailouts for self-inflicted problems.
The outward appearance of the emergency management system in Michigan is that of a rescue team that is there as a fall back to municipalities when times get tough. The reality is that it is an extension of structural racism that has been targeting majority black communities with no accountability and with no concern for improving the residents’ lives. Structural racism is defined by Keith Lawrence from the Aspen Institute on Community Change and Terry Keleher from the Applied Research Center at UC Berkeley in their piece “Chronic Disparity: Strong and Pervasive Evidence of Racial Inequalities Poverty Outcomes Structural Racism” as:
“Structural Racism in the U.S. is the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. It is a system of hierarchy and inequity, primarily characterized by white supremacy – the preferential treatment, privilege and power for white people at the expense of Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Arab and other racially oppressed people.”
Examples of structural racism would include segregation, police brutality, conviction rate disparities and red lining in real estate. All of these examples are not about bad individuals but about bad policy and practices that create disparities in power, access, opportunities, and treatment whether they are intentional or not. Structural racism is more difficult to locate in a particular institution because it involves the reinforcing effects of multiple institutions and cultural norms, past and present, continually producing new, and re-producing old forms of racism (Lawrence). Michigan’s emergency management system has been a key player in producing undesirable outcomes for black Michigan residents. Emergency managers throughout the state have been responsible for destroying educational opportunities, breaking down communities with school closures, placing hiring restrictions and increasing layoffs, and literally poisoning the water of an entire city that will affect health and education outcomes for thousands of people for generations.
Beyond issues of structural racism, many of the practices of Michigan emergency managers are in violation of both the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. The ability for appointed emergency managers to usurp the power of local elected officials violates Article 4, Section 4 of the Constitution which guarantees citizens democratically elected representatives (Cramer). Emergency mangers have also violated several human rights. Article 21 is the right to participate in government and free elections, Article 25 is the right to adequate living standard, Article 26 is the right to education, and Article 30 is the freedom from state or personal interference in the above rights (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights”). These violations add up to match the truest definition of structural racism, when a majority of one population over all others is having Constitutional and Human Rights violated because of a public policy of the state.
Many people today claim that our country and our modern times are marked by colorblindness and a post-racial society. But I believe the exact opposite. Racism is not over, it has just changed shapes. We need to stop trapping racism in the past as a stereotyped KKK member and trapping threats to health and safety to international terrorists. There are dangers from within as much as from without. We need the reality check that our own federal and state governments have violated human rights. It is not just an evil thing done by backwards countries. Until we as a state and a country can open our eyes and become aware of the racist practices affecting our lives every day, there will be no improvement.
It is tragic that something as catastrophic as the Flint water crisis had to happen before anyone paid attention to the multiple problems with Michigan’s emergency management policy. There were thousands of people for several years speaking out to the injustice of school closings, water shut off and union dismantling, but none of them were listened to by the media or the public. It is easy to ignore problems until they affect you and your family. Let us all be more vigilant to the power structures around us so we may avoid future tragedies.
Cramer, Meg. “7 Things to Know About Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law.” Michigan Radio. PBS, 6 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
Lawrence, Keith, and Terry Keleher. “Chronic Disparity: Strong and Pervasive Evidence of Racial Inequalities and Poverty Outcomes.” Intergroup Resources. Race and Public Policy Conference, 2004. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.
Savage, Chris. “Majority White Communities Avoid Emergency Mangers with Help from Republicans Denby and Rogers.” Eclectablog. Savage News Media, 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.