It seems obvious to say that what happened in Flint, Michigan was about race and economic inequality, but it was — and still is — about these issues. We all know it. The citizens of Flint, Michigan were allowed to unknowingly drink, cook and bathe with water that was contaminated with lead and other toxins, while the Governor of Michigan and his administration idly sat by.
Reports show that in June of 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an internal memo noting the water was contaminated with high levels of lead and copper, contributing to serious health issues. The response to these reports by Brad Wurfel, the Spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, was chilling.
He said, “Let me start here: Anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax." I can't make this up if I tried. Not only did the upper echelon of the governor's office know the water was contaminated, but they also told the very people who were consuming contaminated water every day to "relax." But I digress. This can't possibly be related to race, can it?
The crisis in Flint can be traced back to 2014, when in an effort to save the state money, Flint's Emergency Financial Manager switched the city's water source to the Flint River rather than renew the city's water contract with Detroit. Residents of Flint were repeatedly told that the water was safe to drink. Not long after, residents began to complain to government officials that the water coming out of their faucets was brown and had a strong odor.
These concerns went ignored.
The ignoring of those concerns has led to the permanent damage of an entire generation of children. "These children are going to be injured for life. They're going to need remedial education, they're going to need educational enrichment programs," Dr. Philip Landrigan, Dean of Global Health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told CBS News in an interview in January, 2016.
The failure of the governor to protect his most vulnerable citizens was not just irresponsible, but criminal. Let's be clear, this never would have happened in Bloomfield Hills, home to three of the richest zip codes in the state. This would never happen in Westchester, McLean or any other affluent suburb across this vast country. You and I both know it wouldn't happen. Thankfully though, you don't take my word for it. An independent panel put together by the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, said the same thing. In the Flint Water Report, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force concluded that:
Flint residents, who are majority black or African American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities.
The report went on to say:
The Flint water crisis occurred when state-appointed emergency managers replaced local representative decision-making in Flint, removing the checks and balances and public accountability that comes with public decision making. Emergency managers made key decisions that contributed to the crisis, from the uses of the Flint River, to delays in reconnecting to DWSD once water quality problems were encountered. Given the demographics of Flint, the implications for the environmental injustice cannot be ignored.
If we can't protect the vulnerable among us, it's about time we ask ourselves who we are as a country. Innocent men, women and children will now suffer for the rest of their lives from lowered IQ, developmental delays and behavioral issues related to lead poisoning because of the failure of the people who were supposed to protect them. If citizens can't trust the one institution that is supposed to be made for them and by them, then who can they really trust?
This wasn't an accident; this was intentional. Let's call it what it is. City managers who had no ties to these communities and no real stake in improving them weren't put at risk. Their decisions to cut corners and save a few dollars in the budget didn't affect them. This was about a few measly tax breaks. This was about politics.
The governor effectively poisoned the poor in order to keep tax cuts for the rich. At the center of all politics is the intersection of race and economic inequality. I firmly believe that budgets are moral documents that lay out our goals and priorities. They tell the public how we intend to spend their money and what we think deserves the utmost attention. Governor Snyder's budget spoke volumes.
He came to office with what he believed was a mandate to cut taxes and lower the budget across the board. The only way to accomplish his goals without causing a political backlash was to cut funding in poor and disadvantaged communities. It is literally the only way to cut taxes without completely bankrupting the entire state, which he ironically came close to doing.
What the governor knew, though, is that poor people historically don't vote, and when they do, it's usually against their self-interest. It's sad, but true.
None of this should be new or earth-shattering. Hurricane Katrina and the chaos that ensued is all too familiar. What is different this time is the environment in which it has happened. Americans have finally begun to acknowledge and discuss uncomfortable truths like racism and income inequality.
The barrage of unarmed police shootings, Donald Trump riots and Black Lives Matter debates delivered to our dinner tables has made race and economics impossible to ignore. Whether we as a country are ready or not, these conversations are going to be had. Questions will have to be answered.
What kind of country are we going to be? Are we going to be a country that is reactive to a 24-hour news cycle that feeds our need for breaking news, or a country that is proactive and looks at the roots of our problems? Are we going to be a country that shies away from uncomfortable truths and inconvenient conversations, or a country that acknowledges our shortcomings and aims to address them in a real and effective way?
This is bigger than any one election or candidate; this is about an ethos. When the campaigns are over and the votes have all been tallied, policies will still have to be executed and implemented. It's always easier to say you're going to do something than it is to actually do it. Time will tell, though. It always does.
But for the people of Flint (and all those who will undoubtedly follow in their footsteps, if we fail), I hope we do everything but “relax." Your lives truly do depend on it.