What the People of Flint Really Need

by Breannah Alexander

In late 2014 I was living in Atlanta, Georgia when a friend sent me a story surrounding residents complaining about contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. At the time of this story, the key element was that residents were getting sick from their water and had been advised to boil or use bottled water to bathe, brush teeth, wash dishes, prepare food or general consumption. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in September 2014, stated that the water of residents and businesses in certain areas of the city tested positive “when given a total coliform test, suggesting there may be a pathway for pathogens and fecal contamination,” as reported by Ron Fonger of MLive Media Group. The response they were met with was an advisory to boil the water before drinking. Here’s a detailed timeline of the water crisis.

On January 23, 2015, in a story published by the Detroit Free Press’ Robin Erb – the author asked a single question, “who wants to drink Flint’s water?” In the story, they captured the ongoing concerns of residents who had been complaining about rashes and elevated concerns about the long-term damage being cause by water distributed to Flint residents. One resident recalled “throwing up like bleach water.”

Residents were met with the continued assurances of the City and State of Michigan that the water was safe.

In September 2015 we learned that not only were the concerns of the residents justified but that, in a city where economic instability has already had a lasting impact on the outcomes of many residents, the future of the city’s children had been forever altered. When information was released by Hurley Medical Center, in Flint, that the proportion of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled since the city switched from the Detroit water system to using the Flint River, a state of emergency should’ve been declared then.

Flint residents were met with a silence so deafening that one cannot ignore the glaring truths unveiled by this man-made disaster: a city met with economic strife was stripped of its rights by the most detrimental form of privilege, indifference.

For those of us who do anti-racism work, it’s easy for us to say that we have a race problem in every area of society – we are trained to look for it. However, if we had a race problem in 2015, the Flint crisis just made it an emergency.

As best said by the Detroit Free Press Editorial Board, “It’s not just derelict – it invokes inglorious comparison to other callous and insensitive official responses to tragedy. Think of the shameful federal response to Hurricane Katrina, where the same lack of urgency delayed life-saving aid. The poverty rate in Flint is 40%; 52% of Flint residents are African-American. And so we are prompted to ask: How would the state have responded to a crisis of such proportions in a community with more wealth and power?”

That statement appropriately frames why this places Michigan in a particular state of crisis as it relates to race. A state where the source of the Flint disaster can be pin pointed to the passage of legislation that evokes a selective notion of self-governance, the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act. A piece of legislation that empowers the Governor’s Office to “take over” any municipality or school district it deems as irresponsible. A piece of legislation that no one truly paid attention to – a law that authorizes selective disenfranchisement facilitated by the State of Michigan.

This legislative remedy to fiscal “irresponsibility” is racism baked in a beautiful cake that has an aftertaste reaching across color lines. Public Act 4 of 2011 (the actual legislation being referenced minus the assumption inducing name) should have been applied to countless municipalities whose financial woes hit the ceiling during economic downturns because recouping lost revenue while trying to maintain an infrastructure that was created to accommodate residents who sprawled and developed the now dwindling cities is actually quite complex. However, the cities where this maneuver was used had one key variable in common: communities with large minority populations.

Public Act 4 of 2011 empowers an individual (Emergency Financial Manager), who is not accountable to the public, to make decisions that elected officials are generally empowered to make by virtue of their election to represent the interests of the people they serve. The autocratic nature of Emergency Financial Managers is what opens the door to disasters like the one in Flint: one individual making decisions for a community he or she does not have a vested interest in. Gross negligence is why the concerns of residents voiced to a state that stood silent when asked to lead in cleaning up a mess they created were never heard.

Apathy is the reason it took a year and a half for the rest of us to pay attention. The type of apathy that our internalized bias evokes is what allows a Flint water crisis to exist in the first place. The summarily disregarded concerns of a largely minority community forces us to face the fact that racism was a culprit in this public health crisis. Racism is what causes the concerns of a city to go unnoticed in the public eye (with the exception of Rachel Maddow) when screaming about the concerns they have for their health. Racism is the reason thousands of children sat in school while being served poisoned water. Racism is what prevents the state from pouring resources into a community that is experiencing a form of trauma in which the state was the sole architect of.

Racism is what makes the aforementioned paragraph hard to swallow. I have a career rooted in deconstructing the ways in which racism plays out in our communities, within our institutions and amongst people. I write about what is happening in Flint as the outcome of a larger problem; people. We have a people problem when the immediate response to this crisis is the assumption that it was a disaster brought on by “their own” poor management. We have a people problem when we’ve passively allowed for the execution of legislation that has very publicly been disparately applied to communities in the state. We have a people problem when it takes a year and a half for us to hear our neighbors. We have a people problem because our hearing problem has everything to do with race. Our assumptions continue to shape the way we even discuss the crisis in Flint and our role in facilitating it. The answer here is simple, we are all accountable for this crisis but will we pretend to see fifty shades of nothing or get real about the problem?

We have a race emergency and kids had to be poisoned for us to see it.

The conversation surrounding Flint is first and foremost about the disenfranchisement of a city of people. Disenfranchisement is 100 percent about power. A deconstruction of racism is what should inform this conversation in looking at power and its use.

Photo: Linda Parton / Shutterstock.com

Breannah currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan working as a Program Administrator with Partners for a Racism-Free Community and is Founder of the think tank women reVamped. She is also Co-Chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Grand Rapids board and a Leader with Opportunity Nation, a national campaign to increase economic mobility for young people in the United States.

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