[Marxism] A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jan 22 06:13:26 MST 2016

NY Times, Jan. 22 2016
A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint

If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government 
have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its 
lead-polluted water?

The 274 pages of emails released by Gov. Rick Snyder this week on 
Flint’s water crisis included no discussion of race. Instead, they 
focused on costs relating to the city’s water supply, questions about 
scientific data showing lead contamination and uncertainty about the 
responsibilities of state and local health officials.

But it is indisputable that in Flint, the majority of residents are 
black and many are poor. So whether or not race and class were factors 
in the state’s agonizingly slow and often antagonistic response, the 
result was the same: Thousands of Flint’s residents, black and white, 
have been exposed to lead in their drinking water. And the long-term 
health effects of that poisoning may not be fully understood for years.

For civil rights advocates, the health crisis in Flint smacks of what 
has become known as environmental racism. Coined in the 1980s, the term 
refers to the disproportionate exposure of blacks to polluted air, water 
and soil. It is considered the result of poverty and segregation that 
has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the 
most industrialized or dilapidated environments.

Many of those advocates assert that environmental racism is a major 
reason black people in Louisiana’s factory-laden “Cancer Alley” contract 
the disease at higher rates, or why the most polluted ZIP code in 
Michigan is in a southwest pocket of Detroit that is 84 percent black.

Many also say that environmental racism left blacks confined to the most 
flood prone parts of New Orleans, and that the government was slow to 
respond to the agonies immediately after Hurricane Katrina. President 
George W. Bush staunchly rejected that assertion.

Environmental decisions are often related to political power. In some 
cities, garbage incinerators have been built in African-American 
neighborhoods that do not have the political clout to block them. In 
Michigan, where blacks are 14 percent of the population and the state 
government is dominated by Republicans, Flint has little political power.

The water contamination in Flint was born out of a decision to switch 
the city’s water source to the Flint River in April 2014. The explicit 
goal was to save Flint, which was on the brink of financial collapse, 
millions of dollars. At the time, an emergency manager appointed by Mr. 
Snyder, a Republican, was running Flint. And in a sign of how racial 
issues are often not simple, that manager, Darnell Earley, who supported 
the switch, is black.

There were immediate concerns among residents about the quality of the 
murky water from the Flint River, which years ago was a repository for 
industrial waste from the city’s once booming, now almost extinct, 
factories. (Officials argued that they were drawing water from a cleaner 
portion of the river upstream.) Early tests showing coliform bacteria in 
the water were not "an actual threat to citizen safety,” Mr. Earley was 
quoted saying in The Flint Journal on Sept. 12, 2014.

Complaints continued to roll in — people got rashes, lost hair and were 
sickened by the water. But state officials sought to minimize the 
problem and attributed the uproar to politics. Flint is a Democratic 
stronghold which voted overwhelmingly against Mr. Snyder during his 
re-election campaign two years ago.

If the emails make no mention of race, they do at times view things 
through a political prism, treating some complaints from community 
representatives as political grandstanding. One notes that state 
environmental regulators believed that Flint activists were trying to 
turn lead exposure “into a political football.” Another email referred 
to the “anti-everything group.”

Even as levels of one chemical compound in Flint water exceeded 
federally allowable levels, a memo prepared for Mr. Snyder by his staff 
said that it was “not a top health concern” and that residents needed to 
understand the compound in context, the email records show. The memo, 
sent last February, also said that by the time the city connected to a 
new water system in 2016, “this issue will fade in the rearview.”

Dennis Muchmore, who was Mr. Snyder’s chief of staff at the time, 
sounded alarm bells in July. But some state officials responded tepidly. 
When Mr. Muchmore wrote to the state health department that people were 
rightfully concerned about studies of lead levels, the department 
responded by sending him a report indicating that the Flint water was 
safe. That report, however, ignored another analysis that showed 
elevated levels of lead in in the city’s children.

In an email sent about two months later, Mr. Muchmore, wrote that there 
was a “swirl of misinformation” and that the outrage was partly because 
of a "long-term distrust of local government."

In recent months, the governor asked for daily briefings. On Tuesday, 
Mr. Snyder apologized for his administration’s stumbling response to the 
water crisis. “I’m sorry most of all that I let you down,” the governor 
said in his annual State of the State address. “You deserve better. You 
deserve accountability.”

Asked on Thursday whether the racial and socioeconomic makeup of Flint 
played a role in the state’s response, David Murray, a spokesman for Mr. 
Snyder, focused mostly on the governor’s work in Detroit, the state’s 
largest city that is nearly 83 percent black. Indeed, Mr. Snyder has 
poured tens of millions of dollars into the city’s recovery from 
bankruptcy. And much to the dismay of his Republican allies, he has 
expanded Medicaid to make health insurance available to thousands more 
low-income people, many of them black. But Mr. Murray’s statement did 
not address the lax response to the water crisis in Flint.

Representative Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Flint, said he was 
not surprised. He called race “the single greatest determinant of what 
happened in Flint.”

He added, “They treated it like it was a public-relations problem not a 
public problem for the people in Flint.”

Mitch Smith contributed reporting from Chicago.

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