FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

This Would Not Happen If They Were White: Race, Class, and Politics in Flint, Michigan

by

shutterstock_315865412

The water crisis in the city of Flint represents one of the most egregious examples of dereliction of duty in the state of Michigan’s long history of dereliction. The 274-page release of emails shows a local government unresponsive to the consistent complaints of residents because of fiscal concerns over water supply and conflicting reports of lead contamination. This would not have happened in Auburn Hills, the middle class, mostly white suburb of Detroit. No, the residents of Flint are dealing with lead poisoning, the extent of which we will not know for many years, because they made three primary “mistakes.”

They are Mostly Black

The racial composition of Flint is 56.6% African American. I have no doubt that if it had been white residents voicing their concerns about the quality of the water, the response from the state government would have been swift and aggressive; but the slow response represents an expression of a kind of institutional empathy gap. This ‘gap’ refers to a cognitive bias wherein a person underestimates the visceral nature of pain experienced by another—it is particularly applicable when the person in pain is black. Therefore, since those in power were responding to mostly black folks, I find it unsurprising that they were less responsive to the complaints filed.

Environmental racism was a concept developed in the 1980s. It refers to the “disproportionate exposure of blacks to polluted air, water and soil.” Poverty and redlining are the primary reason why black and brown people disproportionately live in industrialized areas that expose them to higher amounts of pollutants. Add, now, irresponsive public officials that give rise to an institutional empathy gap to the list of things that contribute to environmental racism.

They are Poor

Reading statistics about Flint and poverty makes me think of stories my mother, aunts, and uncles would tell me of living in rural Oklahoma. They would often tell me that they were poor, but they were unaware of it because everyone else around them was poor as well. For them, it was just a way of life. The same is true of Flint.

The US Census Bureau recently reported that Flint, Michigan is the second most impoverished city for its size—right behind Youngstown, Ohio. Just over 40 percent of the municipality’s residents are living at or below the poverty line. Those in power find it easy to ignore the cries of poor people—especially if those poor people happen to be largely black.

They are Democrats.

The people of Flint, Michigan, throughout history, have consistently voted democratically. No, that’s putting it too lightly. Let me put it this way: I have no doubt that Bernie Sanders would give Hilary Clinton a serious fight for the votes of the city. In 2006, the Bay Area Center for Voting Research ranked Flint as the 10th most liberal city in the United States. It was ranked as more liberal than Baltimore, Maryland, and Cleveland, Ohio. I think this is important in understanding the response of the Republican Governor Rick Snyder and his Republican Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General.

Put bluntly, since the voters in Flint, Michigan, are a lost cause and of no use to the Republican led state government, those in power have little incentive to respond to the complaints. Compound this political disincentive with what has been explicated above (racism and classism), and you have a recipe for disaster. As the citizens of the city lost hair and developed rashes, as poor brown children drank water that was tainted with E. Coli and smelled of metal and gas, those with the power to help did nothing.

Representative Dan Kildee was elected to represent the citizens of Flint. He called race “the single greatest determinant of what happened in Flint.” That may be true, but it doesn’t help to be poor and democratic in Michigan, either. In fact, as this water crisis shows, it can get you killed.

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He can be reached at:  Law.writes@gmail.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail