Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | January 11, 2016

Racism + Destruction of Democracy = Flint Water Crisis

Racism + Destruction of Democracy = Flint’s Water Crisis

Why did the Flint water crisis happen? 

Much has been and will be written on the poisoning of the residents of Flint, MI.  There were decisions made by people in the short-term that lead to the public health crisis, but there are long-term institutional and political reasons that the city was placed in such a vulnerable position for this to even happen.  This was years in the making, replete with a multitude of past and present factors that all came together at just the right time that has now created a man-made yet entirely preventable public health disaster.  Racism, socio-economics, and the destruction of democracy all combined to poison an entire city.  But if it could happen in Flint, MI, it can happen anywhere when we are not paying attention.

Socio-economics and the intersection of racism and classism

The downfall of the auto industry in Flint as well as dozens of other urban cities across the rust belt set the stage for this industrial city’s economic decline.   Flint lost its manufacturing base when GM left and never recovered economically; hence, population dwindled, so the tax base dried up, and infrastructure could not be updated nor repaired.  So now Flint, like many other urban centers, has decaying pipes infused with lead ready to leach out at any given moment with just the right chemical make-up from the water it carries.   In October of 2014, even, GM pulled its water source from the Flint River, because the water was rusting car parts. But save the cars, and not the people?  I’m not sure what the powers of GM did or did not do politically or publicly to force the government to help the city and its residents regarding the poisoning that was happening…..the workers, on the other hand, have rallied and are loyal to their city.

The decline of jobs in cities is a piece of the puzzle, but German Lopez of Vox points out eloquently how racism has also played a part in how lead contamination happened in Flint.  The article outlines how lead exposure hits communities of color harder, and has been doing so for decades.  In a 2013 study by the CDC, it was found that although blood lead levels among US children have declined since the 1990’s, high blood lead levels among black children (1 to 5 years old) between 2007 and 2010 were still more than twice as high as their white counterparts. See here and here

Lopez goes deeper than economics and points out that “centuries of discriminatory and oppressive policies have pushed black people into poor towns and cities that can’t afford the lead abatement programs that wealthier places can.”  Lead exposure is just one of the ways we see racism rear its ugly head in our society.  We can easily find the disparities between blacks and whites in the areas of infant mortality and morbidity, high school graduation rates, educational attainment, suspension rates in school, incarceration, lead exposure, employment, wages, police brutality to blacks, etc.  Anyone with a computer, Google and a brain can determine that racism exists in this country; it is loud, bold, real, deadly and quantifiable. One of my favorite authors on the subject, Ta-Nehesi Coates, details in his 2014 essay in The Atlantic  how “two hundred fifty years of slavery…ninety years of Jim Crow….sixty years of separate but equal….  thirty-five years of racist housing policy…..” have all created a continual oppressive and racist American society.  He writes, “until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

The bottom line is that in an affluent, white community lead-contaminated water would never have reached its citizens.  Never.

Racist Dictatorship Destroys Democracy

Governor Rick Snyder has engaged in a city by city power grab, and most notably, the cities and schools he has taken over are predominantly African-American and poor (Racism – affluent whites know better – see Ta-Nehesi Coates article above).  For a complete list of Snyder takeover in Michigan, go here:

For instance, Detroit’s takeover ensured that 50% of Michigan’s African-American population are not being run by their elected officials, but by gubernatorial appointees.   Even though Michigan voters rejected Snyder’s emergency manager law in 2012, Snyder and the Republican legislature passed Public Act 436 (against the voter’s wishes) that gives the governor authority to, per State Representative Rose Mary Robinson, a Detroit Democrat, make moves “without debate, without democratic involvement, without the people’s involvement.”  The Emergency Manager law gives him the authority to employ someone to disempower local elected officials and who can “impose cuts to public services, toss out policies established by the voters and their elected representatives and trash contracts with unions representing municipal employees.” See here:

Emergency Managers are not held accountable to anyone but the Governor.  They can make unilateral decisions without regard to any process or policy that has been in place via city councils, boards of education, and the like.  The elected representatives of a city or a school have are merely symbolic in nature, and have no authority to ensure the protections of the citizens they represent.  The Emergency Manager is essentially a dictator that is put in power to save money for failing schools or cities, the same cities and schools that have been oppressed for decades by long-time discriminatory and oppressive policies meant to keep their citizens down.  Louise Seamster and Jessica Welburn of The Root point out: “Flint’s citizens, 52 percent African American, have been deprived of the right to govern their city since 2011. Michigan’s Emergency Financial Manager law allows the governor to appoint an unelected official to control a city determined to be in fiscal crisis. Emergency Financial Managers have been primarily assigned to majority-African-American cities across Michigan. In the past decade, over half of African Americans in Michigan—compared with only 2 percent of whites—have lived under emergency management. EFMs are supposed to take over cities based on a neutral evaluation of financial circumstances—but majority-white municipalities  with similar money problems have not been taken over.  Flint’s poisoning is one effect of the systematic stripping of black civil rights in Michigan.”

Much is coming out now about who knew what when.  Blame is being thrown to the Flint city council and its officials, but remember, they had no power.  Flint has been under an Emergency Manager since 2011.  And, as early as March of 2015, the then-appointed Flint Emergency Manager Ambrose knew there were problems with the water, but yet he did nothing.  “We understand the concerns about discoloration and odors,” said Gerald Ambrose, Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager. “We tell everyone who complains (note his word, complain) that we would be more than happy to come out to their house and test their water….but there has been no link to health problems.” The fact that he used the word “complain” says much about what he thinks of the people of Flint.  If they were affluent people, I bet they’d be “reporting,” not “complaining” on what they are seeing in the water.

With no electability, there is no accountability, thus no one takes responsibility. Many cities in Michigan are not functioning as a democracy thanks to Governor Snyder and his myriad of oppressive policies (and the state itself is not much of a democracy these days, either).   Benjamin Spoer, in his op-ed for Al Jezeera America, is calling this a human rights violation, which I would agree.   In 2010, the United Nations declared that “ … clean drinking water … [is] essential to the realization of all human rights.” Flint’s contaminated water will prevent children from realizing their human right to health, enumerated in Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human RightsOur government allowed and perpetrated not only a public health crisis, but committed human rights violations.  The Emergency Manager Law should be repealed, rewritten, or constitutionally amended before another Michigan city has its residents irreparably damaged by oppressive, indifferent, incompetent and uncaring officials (who are not  even elected).

For a recent update on the timeline of the crisis, go here:

 And now, the history and dangers of Pb(CH2CH3)4

We all know by now, if paying attention, that lead is a neurotoxin and does irreparable damage to a child’s developing brain and other organs.   The abundance of research has shown that there are no safe amounts of lead.  The EPA now says unequivocally that there is “no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood,” and it turns out that even levels under 10 μg/dL can reduce IQ by as much as seven points. An estimated 2.5 percent of children nationwide have lead levels above 5 μg/dL.  Low exposure to lead has been linked to attention and hyperactivity problems in children and higher amounts linked to reduced IQ and behavioral and criminal activity in adolescence and adulthood.  Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs.  But why?

Lead promotes brain cells to die,  and when it settles in cerebral tissue, it prevents calcium ions from doing their job, thus causing physical damage to the developing brain.  This brain damage lasts into adulthood. Further, lead is distributed to organs such as the brain, kidneys, liver and bones. The body stores lead in the teeth and bones where it accumulates over time. Lead stored in bone may be remobilized into the blood during pregnancy, thus exposing the fetus. Undernourished children are more susceptible to lead because their bodies absorb more lead if other nutrients, such as calcium, are lacking. Children at highest risk are the very young (including the developing fetus) and the impoverished.  Thus, the concentrations of lead in the more poverty-stricken parts of Flint are of extreme concern.

At lower levels of childhood exposure that are seen later,  behavioral changes such as hyperactivity and shortened attention span can occur (accounting for higher rates of ADHD, perhaps?)  Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity , and damage to reproductive organs.

The University of Cincinnati has been following a group of lead-exposed children for more than 30 years.  They have MRI scans to demonstrate the neurological differences between children with high and low lead exposure in childhood.   One study found that high lead exposure inhibits the formation and structure of myelin, which is a protective sheath around the connections between neurons.  Thus, the neuronal communication is lessened, and the “brain becomes both slower and less coordinated.”   Another study found high exposure was linked to losing gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain associated with “executive functions – emotion regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility, and the impact is greater among boys.”  Kim Cecil, a member of the Cincinnati research team states, lead affects the areas of the brain that “make us most human.”   Incidentally, the effects of lead exposure are similar to the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, another known neurotoxin,  both of which leads to permanent brain damage that is highly preventable.

Research into the effects of lead exposure in the 70’s and 80’s led to a public health campaign and efforts to reduce lead in the environment. Leaded gasoline was finally banned in 1996.  Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978.  Researchers have even posited that the reduction in crime in the late 1990’s was a result of eliminating leaded gasoline in the late 70’s and 80’s.  (However, there is research supporting that even more lead abatement is needed, especially to the soil in inner cities, as this is continuing to expose lead to children particularly in the core of inner cities).  For a detailed analysis of the history of lead and its link to violent crime, go here:

The fact remains, however, that a public health response to reduce lead exposure to children, by removing lead in gasoline and paint, and by instituting lead abatement programs, has been proven to be successful.  This fact makes what happened and is continuing to happen in Flint, MI nothing more than A CRIME.  We know that lead abatement programs work, that reducing exposure to lead for children has individual and community-wide health benefits on a multitude of levels.  But yet, the Governor of our state appointed Emergency Managers to control an industrial city only to cut costs not to preserve nor enhance public services, and these officials made unilateral decisions that allowed children to drink poisoned lead-infused water.

It likely won’t be for another 10-15 years that we will know the long-lasting ill effects of the 9000 children under 6 who were exposed to lead. Their physical health, educational attainment, mental health, and behavioral health are left now to the unknown, but with an expected trajectory that we must be ready for.  But what if that was the goal all along – to keep an entire generation of people oppressed, damaged, untrusting of government and unable to participate in true democracy.

Our children are continually left without a voice, so we have to keep speaking for them.

Ways to help:

Flint Water Fund

“Water You Fighting For” organizer Melissa Mays video on how to help

Water Resource Sites


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