By Dr. E. Faye Williams
Trice Edney — Previously, I’ve written about environmental racism and the untold and unpredictable impact it’s had/will have on communities of color. Common to these episodes have been motives of profit and financial gain. Additionally, there’s been a total disregard for the welfare and humanity of affected communities.
Reflecting on news from Flint, Mich., I am struck by the severity and long-term impact of this case of environmental racism. Unless you live under a rock, you are aware of the callous and systematic poisoning of Flint residents over the past 18 months.
Typical of the industrial Midwest, Flint is overwhelmingly controlled by elected officials affiliated with the Democratic Party. The racial make-up of its current population is 56.6 percent African American, 37.4 percent white, 3.9 percent Hispanic/Latino, and the remainder a mixture of Native American and Asian. 40percent of Flint’s population lives below the poverty line.
Like its neighbor Detroit, Flint played a major role in the automotive industry serving as home to Buick and Chevrolet. The AC Spark Plug Company also originated in Flint. By all measures, Flint flourished because of a robust auto industry. As the industry declined, companies began to consolidate their manufacturing facilities and Flint was abandoned. Insolvency followed.
Uniquely, the Emergency Financial Manager Laws of Michigan allow Republican Governor Rick Snyder to usurp the authority of elected officials of cities in financial insolvency.
Almost as an act of racial/political subjugation, Snyder has used his power to appoint emergency managers who have total autonomy over Flint. This system allows emergency managers to act independently of any laws passed or decisions enacted by duly elected officials. By 2013, six Michigan cities and almost half of the state’s African American population were under emergency management.
This brings us to the decision to change Flint’s water supply. Prior to April 2014, Flint obtained its public water through Detroit’s system sourced from Lake Huron. In a cost-saving effort to trim $12 Million in annual cost, the sitting Emergency Manager decided to obtain water from the Flint River. Early response to the change and current knowledge show the impact upon Flint’s public water supply to be an environmental calamity of incalculable proportion. Simply put, Flint River water was toxic, corrosive and unfit for consumption.
In September, Flint’s Hurley Medical Center released a study that found the number of infants and children with elevated lead-blood levels had doubled. In high risk areas, it tripled. The impact of this exposure can’t be determined now, but it is estimated that, among those exposed, significant learning disabilities will result and the need for special juvenile services will develop.
Instead of a prudent and remedial response to complaints and evidence of polluted water, the Snyder administration acted with reckless disregard. Residents were told to “relax” and were assured that, despite the brown color and noxious odor, the water was “safe” to drink. Such action against Flint’s large African American population can most assuredly be called GENOCIDE.
Water is the source of life. The callous mismanagement of that essential commodity gives greater meaning to the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It should also teach African American communities that we are our own best caretakers. We cannot continue to put full-faith and trust in government or institutions to do the right thing.
In his 1970 preface to the book, We Charge Genocide, Ossie Davis wrote: “We will submit no further to the brutal indignities being practiced against us; we will not be intimidated, and most certainly not eliminated. We claim the ancient right of all peoples, not only to survive unhindered, but also to participate as equals in man’s inheritance here on earth. We fight to preserve ourselves, to see that the treasured ways of our life-in-common are not destroyed by brutal men or heedless institutions.”