Flint’s Poisoned Water in a System of Racism/White Supremacy

From [the74million] In Flint, Michigan, 60 percent of people are black and 4 of every 10 people live in poverty. Flint has little funding supporting its community; thus, those with the greatest need are deprived of resources. Instead of using state resources to address the challenges facing Flint, the state of Michigan decided not to invest in its citizens, pulling resources and severely cutting the budget.

In April 2014, city officials attempted to save money by switching the water supply to a regional water system that wasn’t ready for use yet. While the city waited, they used water from the Flint River. Soon, citizens began to complain about the taste and color of tap water. The city tested the water and found the bacteria E. coli.

To get rid of the E. coli, the city pumped chlorine into the water supply, which damaged the pipes, allowing lead to seep into the water. The city’s water became astonishingly polluted, with lead levels 1,000 times higher than what would ordinarily trigger federal intervention. The pollution caused some residents to break out in rashes, others to have their hair fall out, and others to suffer impaired cognitive development and mood disorders.

It’s difficult to imagine a similar crisis happening in a wealthier, whiter city. What happened in Flint is the product of structural racism — something subtler than what you may have studied in school. Its existence is based on a long history of racial hierarchies that manifested in laws and policies that give advantages to white people, while producing negative outcomes for people of color. Structural racism is racism perpetuated by the fine print.

So what happened in Flint? Throughout the 1960s, the Federal Housing Administration had explicit instructions to deny or limit financial services in Michigan and elsewhere “based on racial or ethnic composition.” This practice, known as “redlining,” made it easier for white people to receive better housing. This encouraged self-segregation, as white people living near people of color were able to move to better neighborhoods.

Redlining was combined with state and private discrimination actions to prevent people of color from achieving economic stability. Preventing people from fully participating in the economy meant that even after the destruction of explicitly racist policies, people of color no longer had economic power. Cities like Flint became majority black and increasingly poor as wealthier white residents left for the suburbs.

Structural inequality is not limited to Flint but is unfortunately embedded in many communities across the country. It is imperative that all of us in America understand and confront structural racism. Outside of our moral and humanitarian obligations, the poisoning of Flint’s water clearly illustrates how political and economic racism can have dire effects for vulnerable populations. [MORE]