Since the devastation associated with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, America has not seen a level of absolute bureaucratic inertia and total abandonment of an entire population until now. The cries for help of 100,000 people to avert an impending public health crisis were either out rightly dismissed or fell on the deaf ears of state officials.
Children as young as five, pregnant women and seniors are all a part of the community in Flint, Michigan, which is 56.6 percent African American, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The fact that the town was relegated to drinking lead-contaminated water is another dreadful example of how government ignores the poor, the suffering and underprivileged masses. To understand this catastrophe and capture the enormity of the suffering is to unravel how Republican Gov. Rick Snyder could have allowed this public health disaster to ever happen.
The second finger of blame should be pointed at the state appointed former emergency manager Darnell Earley, an African American hired by Snyder. It was his decision to switch Flint’s water supply from Detroit’s clean water (which comes from the Great Lakes) to toxic sludge of the Flint River, all under the guise of saving money. When the decision was made to switch it back, the consequences had already begun to take its toll.
For 18 months, residents complained that the water from the Flint River looked, smelled and tasted funny. They warned that the water was making them sick and some were already developing skin rashes. The state did not respond to their cries. Instead, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality gave false assurances that the water was safe and denied that there were high levels of lead. Local health officials also conducted their own research only to confirm the suspicions of residents that the water was unfit to use. Even General Motors refused to use the water for its vehicle parts because it was damaging their machines.
A research team from Virginia Tech entered the fray, conducting an independent study and concluded that there was indeed an unbelievable amount of lead in the water. And yet, the state still did nothing, until persistent public outcries and a galvanized community backed by dogged media inquiries finally got the wheels of government moving to accept a measure of responsibility in this health emergency. By the time the state acknowledged it had failed the people of Flint, Snyder declared a state of emergency, sought federal aide and activated the National Guard to distribute bottles of water to every resident.
What happened here will have a lasting impact on the people of Flint. Studies have shown that lead creates cognitive, psychological and developmental problems, particularly in children. Not only has the water crisis created a mental health disaster, it has also handicapped the potential of a generation of African American youth, who are almost guaranteed to have mental health and intellectual capacity issues.
The evidence is clear. The most vivid, modern example of the disastrous effects of lead on an individual’s ability to thrive successfully can be observed through deceased Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, who died in questionable police custody. His life, as it was later revealed, was punctuated by many challenges. Chief among them was growing up in a housing project where lead paint was present— the indelible effects of which contributed to his untimely, sad fate.
The fact that Flint is a mostly Black and poor community raises vexing questions about race and class and whether this kind of abject failure would have occurred in a rich, White suburban community. History has shown that government caters to the wellbeing of the powerful, wealthy and connected. Because of Flint’s underprivileged socioeconomic status (humanity aside), the city offers no reason for officials to act. The people were dispensable in the eyes of state officials. Their lives did not matter. That was why it took so long for the governor and his administration to come to terms with their inaction. Emails from state officials have been made public, including one particular correspondence from the Gov. Synder’s former chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore. It confirmed that the demand for swift action was in fact completely ignored.
What happened in Flint is a sad commentary in the protracted debate about whether those in government continue to neglect the Black population. This kind of destructive abandonment meted out onto these poor people will never happen in communities where big campaign donors live or where state officials reside. It is also an indictment of the ill-fated decisions that are made by those leaders who have no real connection or bearing in communities they are supposed to serve. It is about a system of government that affirms the allegory in George Orwell’s Animal Farm that “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”
Flint is unequal and it paid the price for being so. Still, residents of the city have remained resilient and have not given up hope even as they face the consequences of another Katrina-style disaster.
Bankole Thompson, a longtime observer of Michigan politics, is a journalist and radio host based in Detroit who writes about the complexities of urban and race issues.