Racism in America: Flint Water Crisis

Given the background of racism in America described in my last blog post, I now turn towards a specific incident that resulted from poor race relations within the U.S., that being the Flint water crisis. To give a brief history of the events leading up to the crisis, I used a New York Times article entitled “Events That Led to Flint’s Water Crisis” as well as CNN’s article “Flint water crisis timeline: How years of problems led to lead poisoning.” It all began when the city of Flint decided to switch its water supply from Detroit’s water system, which directly uses water from the Detroit River and Lake Huron, to the Flint River. The switch was made despite knowing that the water in the river is highly corrosive. The intended purpose of this switch was to be a temporary solution until the under construction supply line to Lake Huron was ready for connection in two years while saving a tremendous amount of money for the city in the process. However, not long after the switch, residents began complaining about the quality of the water. It was discolored, smelled awfully, and tasted horribly. Many were concerned the water contained harmful bacteria. City officials advised residents to boil their water after coliform bacteria was detected in the water. Because of increasing complaints and questions of safety, Detroit’s water system offered to help Flint by reconnecting the city to their water supply and waiving the $4 million connection fee. Despite this more than generous offer, the emergency manager turned it down. In response to the still increasing residential complaints, officials insist that the water is not a “threat to public health.” Around mid to late February 2015, discussion of elevated lead levels in the water arises within the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. After confirming elevated lead levels in one Flint resident’s home, more testing is conducted to determine if it is a city wide problem. In the mean time, pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha confirms multiple cases of children with high levels of lead in their blood. This is extremely alarming due to the fact that lead poisoning leads to serious health problems, especially in young children. Long-term exposure can lead to severe impairments in mental and physical development (Diseases and Conditions). Despite her and her research team’s findings, the state publically denounced the work claiming they were causing an unnecessary panic. However, about a week later, the state reversed their earlier statement and claimed Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was indeed correct. Realizing how detrimental the situation was becoming, Governor Rick Snyder decides to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water supply. Unfortunately, this did not solve the problem because the corrosive Flint River water had already damaged the water pipes beyond repair. Tests continued to show elevated lead levels in the tap water. By October of 2015, residents are advised to not use the water for drinking, cooking, or bathing. Because of this obvious mistreatment, Flint residents file a lawsuit against the governor, the state of Michigan, and Dan Wyant, the previous director of the Department of Environmental Quality who admitted to using inappropriate tactics for corrosion control. In December, Governor Snyder attempts to begin righting the wrongs. By January, the problem is so extensive, he requests a Presidential declaration of a major disaster and emergency and requests federal aid. President Obama declares a state of emergency. Soon after, Governor Snyder makes a public apology and publicizes emails that show he was aware of the harmful effects the water was having on Flint residents. After this, grand measures are taken to try to receive as much funding as possible to fix what had happened. Money was needed to immediately help residents get access to clean water, but also to help treat poisoned children, pay unpaid water bills, fix the water system infrastructure, and get supplies and other resources needed. In the wake of all this, Susan Hedman, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator resigns. To sum it all up, Mike Glasgow, a supervisor of Flint’s water treatment plant, is charged with tinkering with evidence regarding the safety of the water along with “willful neglect of duty as a public officer” (Yan). Multiple others were also charged with tampering with results that directly led to harmful effects for Flint residents (Lin & Yan).

Getting into the present, Flint is showing signs of improvement. However, residents are still being informed to use lead filters and drink bottled water until further notice. While the crisis took only a couple years, the lasting impact will be felt for generations to come.

Now is the perfect time to inquire, “What does all of this have to do with racism in America?” I have read varying articles and spoken with several individuals that have led me to realize that there are many people who do not see the connect between the two. In no way do they understand how racism is wrapped up in the crisis. However, in taking a closer look, it can be seen that since racism is so embedded into our society, it can be easily overlooked.

In an article published in The Washington Post, writer Emily Badger addresses a concept known as environmental injustice. She begins by explaining that there is a consistent pattern between poor people, communities of color, and areas of hazardous waste. Knowing this information, it can be easily observed that minorities disproportionately live in areas with toxic waste sites, landfills, and other environmental threats. They very visibly have unequal exposure to pollution when compared to whites. This is due to the fact that, through history and the creation of racism as discussed earlier in this essay, “minorities are more likely to live near what researchers have clinically labeled “locally undesirable land uses” (Badger).

While not exactly the same, this idea of environmental injustice can very much be applied to the Flint water crisis. 40.1% of the city’s residents live in poverty, which makes it one of the poorest cities in the nation (Johnson). Not only is the city poverty stricken, but its residents are also primarily black. Many claim that because of the city’s combination of poverty and minorities, the Flint water crisis is considered environmental racism, or the idea that “race and poverty factored into how Flint wasn’t adequately protected and how its water became contaminated with lead, making the tap water undrinkable” (Martinez). This could not be truer. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have made statements supporting the claim, and clear evidence, that Flint’s crisis occurred due to the city’s demographics (Martinez).

To conclude in explaining how the water crisis was a direct result of racism in America, I must reference an article I came across when researching this topic. Before even beginning to address the question of “what went wrong?” in regards to the crisis, one must first understand the how historical and structural racism function in our society today. The article explains that inequities do not naturally occur, but are instead human creations. Because of these unfair human creations, it can be concluded that events like the Flint water crisis are not simply accidents in history but consequences of the continual perpetuation of racist ideologies in our society. In order to begin to fix situations such as these, there first needs to be a universal understanding that they involve racial components that continually and unjustly harm groups of people (The Editors). This is the reason I began with explaining the history of race and racism in America as well as it’s lasting impacts. In order to understand certain problems and inequalities, there must first be an understanding of where the United States currently stands in regards to race. Without the background knowledge, problems and events like these will not be properly understood nor solved in a successful manner.

The Flint water crisis became big headline news to me just as it did to the majority of other Americans. When word broke about what was happening to Flint residents, I was first shocked and then frustrated, angry, and a multitude of other emotions all at the same time. More and more stories kept being released by various news sources over time that truly expressed just how horrifying the situation was. While there are now timelines that have chronologically laid out all the events that occurred leading up to and during the crisis, as new reports were coming out, there was much conflicting information. Flint residents were told by some sources that the water was safe to drink while other sources warned of the possibility of harmful effects from using it. Readers and other interested individuals that followed the crisis were also confused by the conflicting information being shared. It is difficult to say that in the heat of it all I knew exactly which reports were and weren’t credible. The sources that were informing citizens that the water was safe to use were, or should have been, credible ones, such as Governor Rick Snyder, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other public officials. However, these organizations and individuals that are supposed to have the public’s best interest in mind actually covered up and ignored the evidence that the water was not usable. So, at the time, it was hard to determine which sources were and weren’t credible because the ones that should have been were deceiving the public instead. After the fact and now that the event has been clearly laid out, it can be seen who was and wasn’t truthful.

I specifically chose race and racism in America for my topic because this is one of the biggest and most enduring human rights violations in the world. However, since poor race relations can’t be summed up into just one event, it is not often viewed as a violation. Instead, racism manifests itself in multiple ways in everyday life, like implicit bias and white privilege as explained previously. There are often not massive events that lead people to believe racism is a human rights issue, but it is the fact that small acts of discrimination are built into American society and continually disadvantage certain groups of individuals on a daily basis. The Flint water crisis is just one example of the ways that the historical embedding of racist ideologies have created an environment in which basic human rights are violated. Flint residents didn’t have access to water, a basic human necessity that is needed for survival. If racist ideologies can harm a society so much that citizens of a community don’t have access to a public good, there is no other way to frame the situation than to consider it a human rights violation.

The topic of racism contains a multitude of Peace and Justice themes because of its immense complexity. The main and most obvious theme however, would have to be power and structural inequality. This is because there is an ongoing belief that inequalities exist between races, which manifests itself by advantaging whites over minorities in virtually every arena of life. The other main theme that has been continually stressed throughout this essay is the presence of the past. In order to understand an event such as the Flint water crisis, there must first be an understanding of how racism became what it is today. Beginning with slavery hundreds of years ago and continuing with phenomena such as white privilege and implicit bias today, there must be an understanding of it all and everything in between. Without knowing the past, it is very difficult to understand present situations and why they occurred as they did. The last theme that specifically relates to the Flint water crisis is environmental justice. As discussed previously, many believe that the crisis was a direct result of a phenomenon called environmental racism (Martinez). There is substantial evidence that poor, minority communities are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards and Flint is a perfect example of the phenomenon.

In learning about racism through various university courses and real life experiences like internships and conversations, I have come to understand the concept as a human rights issue. Extensive research on the Flint water crisis has opened my eyes to the ways in which racism leads to the favoritism of certain individuals over others and leads to massive disparities between the privileged and underprivileged. Article one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) could not describe it better. It states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights). In claiming this, the UDHR expresses that all individuals, regardless of racial or ethnic background, are born equal in their rights. Everyone should have access to all facets of life and by preventing some from achieving this universal standard, we are robbing humans of their basic rights. Until we reach “a spirit of brotherhood” (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that the UDHR encourages, we have not ended human rights violations and achieved equality for all.


Works Cited

Badger, Emily. “Pollution is segregated, too.” The Washington Post 15 Apr. 2014. Web.

“Diseases and Conditions – Lead Poisoning.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 10 June 2014. Web. 1 May 2016.

The Editors. “Flint Was No Accident.” America: The National Catholic Review. America Press Inc., 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 March 2016.

Johnson, Jiquanda. “Flint, Detroit among nation’s poorest cities, new Census data show.” MLive 17 Sept. 2015. Web.

Lin, Jeremy C.F., Park, Haeyoun, and Rutter, Jean. “Events That Led to Flint’s Water Crisis.” The New York Times 2016. Web.

Martinez, Michael. “Flint, Michigan: Did race and poverty factor into the water crisis?” CNN 28 Jan. 2016. Web.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. United Nations. Web. 4 May 2016.

Yan, Holly. “Flint water crisis timeline: How years of problems led to lead poisoning.” CNN 3 March 2016. Web.

Leave a comment