The editorial in the Thursday March 31 issue of The Lamron titled “Flint crisis not environmental racism” argued that the water crisis that has poisoned the constituents of Flint, Michigan had no roots in racism. The writer’s basis for this claim is that the poisoned water did not spare the white population of Flint and that the black government leaders played a role in the crisis. According to the editorial, the true issue lies in the fact that an unelected emergency manager had the authority to ignore a city council vote.
The term environmental racism was coined in the 1980s, referring to the disproportionate exposure of black individuals to polluted air, water and soil. This is a result of poverty, segregation and the environmental policies that have relegated many racial minorities to some of the most industrialized and toxic environments in America.
It is true that the water crisis in Flint did not spare the white population—just as it is true that that members of the white population are not spared incarceration in the prison system. According to 2014 statistics from the United States Department of Justice, whites make up 33.6 percent of the United States incarcerated population, while blacks and Hispanics make up 35.8 percent and 21.6 percent respectively.
The key word here is disproportionate. Minorities are disproportionately incarcerated, just as they are disproportionately affected by environmental and water crises. This is why black people in Louisiana’s “cancer alley” are disproportionately diseased and why a black child is over 500 percent more likely to die from asthma than a white child.
Hearings about discriminatory real estate policies declared Flint to be 94 percent segregated in November 1966. Flint has historically been affected by racist policies, which have continued—whether intentionally or unintentionally—to this day through implicit bias against minority-majority cities.
The emergency manager during the time of the Flint water crisis, Darnell Early, was appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and is a black man. The government failed at the federal, state and local level, but arguing that racism did not play a role in its failure because a few decision makers involved were black is a similar argument to claiming racism no longer exists in America because we have a black president.
Snyder prioritized frugality over municipal well-being and appointed the emergency managers, and the Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services also failed in their dismissal of various warnings. We should ask ourselves if warnings of poisoned water would have been dismissed if Flint were a majority white, middle-class city.
Flint citizens have been disenfranchised in terms of governing their city since 2011. The Emergency Manager Law allows Snyder to appoint an unelected official to control a majority black city that is in the midst of numerous crises. According to The Root, approximately 50 percent of the black population in Michigan has been deprived of having a democratically-elected official control their city within the past decade—compared to 2 percent of the white population.
Majority-white cities with similar fiscal problems as Flint have not been taken over by emergency managers. Environmental decisions directly relate to political power and laws that strip Americans of their civil rights disproportionately affect the black population in Michigan—including those in Flint.
People of color—especially those in low-income communities—continue to disproportionately encounter toxic water, environmental hazards and polluted neighborhoods with incinerators, coal plants and landfills that are quietly and slowly killing them. If we fail to address the racism and bias underlying these issues, we will be turning a colorblind eye to the deaths of thousands of Americans.