How race, class set the stage for Flint water crisis

↓ Advertisement ↓

Darryl Wilson is tired of fighting and scraping just to get what most Americans take for granted: clean, safe drinking water.

He wants to leave Flint for a while so someone can replace the pipes and fixtures in his house and the city’s lead and lead-soldered service lines that are leaching the poison into the water. But he doesn’t have the money.

He can't drive.

He's stuck — just like thousands of other people in a poor, majority-African-American city where people cried out for more than a year about odd-smelling, discolored water, rashes, stomach aches and hair loss. They say, and experts agree, they are victims of racial, economic and environmental injustice.

↓ Advertisement ↓

“I’m sure that if the residents of a more affluent community in Michigan — in Ann Arbor or Bloomfield Hills  — noticed that their water was brown and was causing rashes on their children’s skin, that the problem would have been addressed much more quickly," said Michael Reisch, a professor of social justice at the University of Maryland. “Those communities have more political power, more economic power and are more noticed by those who have political power.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder fumbled Wednesday when asked whether race was a factor in how the Flint water crisis evolved.

"I don't know if you can conclude it was a racial issue by any means, but I don't know," he said in a news conference.

But the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, which released its final report of a four-month review of the crisis Wednesday, was resolute. Race played a factor, even if not overtly, in the man-made disaster.

"Environmental injustice is not about overt acts of racism. It's not about motivation. It's not about deliberate attacks on a certain population group," said Ken Sikkema, a member of the task force, senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants and former state representative and state senator. "It's not about overt violations, attacks upon civil rights.

"It's about equal treatment, in this case, equal environmental protection and public health protection regardless of race, national origin or income as one pillar of it," he said.

'They wronged us'

Race and poverty are mixed in a cocktail of mistrust that leaves deep physical and psychological wounds.

"It’s a long, historical fact that low-income, low-power communities and particularly communities of color have been neglected by our society for decades, if not more,” said Reisch, who worked at the University of Michigan for nine years from 1999 to 2008.

In Flint, those factors contributed to a perfect storm as government officials failed to protect public health despite warning signs after the city switched its public water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014. Crucial corrosion-control chemicals were not added to the water, which allowed lead to leach from older pipes, solder and fixtures within homes.

As evidence came to light that the water might be contaminated with lead, government emails show efforts among state employees to discredit the claims and cover up the problem.

What happened in Flint is among the most egregious examples of government's failure to protect its people, said Mark Smaller, a psychoanalyst in Saugatuck, Mich., and president of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

"It’s pretty unfortunate that we’ve come to expect that government is not looking out for people in these communities — whether it’s a community like Flint or Detroit or other similar communities made up of people of color and of a certain socioeconomic level," Smaller said.

Wilson is convinced that if he and his neighbors were rich, if they were white, if they were people who mattered to the powerful, someone would have listened. Something would have been done before the situation in Flint grew dire.

“They wronged us like we wasn’t even human beings,” said Wilson, 46. “I mean they just straight ran over us like a hit and run.”

The wrongs the people of Flint have endured demand long-term psychological attention, said Dr. Michelle Riba, a professor of psychiatry and associate director of the University of Michigan Depression Center.

When those in authority dismiss a person, “it’s demoralizing,” Riba said. "They did have something that needed to be said. They weren’t listened to, and now look what happened."

Even now that Flint is again drawing its water from Lake Huron, the damage to protective coating on the pipes has been done. Phosphates have been added to the water, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports progress in re-coating the protective film on the pipes.

But some water samples still are showing lead contamination, and unfiltered water remains unsafe to drink and to give to pets. Pregnant women and small children still are urged to drink only bottled water.

Flint residents had lost much of their political power when officials made the switch to Flint River water.

The city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency financial manager. In Michigan, emergency financial managers answer only to the governor and are given the authority to make sweeping decisions to turn around financially struggling cities and school districts.

Historically, emergency managers have been brought in to take over in largely poor communities and school districts with a high percentage of people of color, including Benton Harbor, Detroit, Ecorse and Pontiac.

Recent injustice

The Flint crisis isn't the only example of environmental and social injustice.

You can see it in the siting of coal-burning power plants, incinerators, oil refineries and freeways, which predominantly are built in poor sections of cities and suburbs around the country — usually where people of color reside, Reisch said.

With heavy industry comes health effects seen in places like southwest Detroit, where in the shadows of factories and refineries live people with some of the highest rates of asthma in the state.

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, the federal government and then-President George W. Bush were widely criticized for failing to provide adequate relief to those hardest hit in the hurricane — poor, black residents who for days were stranded in flooded homes, climbing onto rooftops, screaming for help as water swelled all around them.

Even two years after the disaster, many of the neediest people displaced in the storm still hadn't returned. The homeless population doubled — largely made up of poor, black people pushed out of their homes because of the storm.

And two years ago in West Virginia, 10,000 gallons of industrial coal-washing chemical spilled into a river about a mile upstream from Charleston's municipal water intake, which serves about 300,000 people.

It was the state’s fifth industrial accident in eight years, and it followed thousands of water-quality violations from the local coal companies that received no fines, the New Yorker reported. In one of the poorest states in the nation, residents said they felt as if for too long no one cared whether coal companies followed regulations to ensure their safety.

"The connection needs to be made that Flint is not just an aberration, as horrible as it is," Reisch said. "It is one of the worst examples of long-standing, long-term institutional neglect."

Other symptoms in Flint and elsewhere:

Deterioration of housing stock
Neglect of public schools
Dearth of grocery stores
Lack of health-care providers
"I am describing Detroit," he said. "I’m also describing parts of west and east Baltimore; and west and north Philadelphia; neighborhoods in New York City, and east Oakland (Calif.); and Anacostia in Washington, D.C., just a stone’s throw from our nation’s capitol; St. Louis; the south side of Chicago. I could go on."

A hard life in Flint

Wilson knows what life is like in Flint, and it makes him angry.

Jobs are scarce. Grocery stores are few. And schools continue to struggle.

He wonders, too, what the water has done to his body. His skin is covered in a rash, which pocked his deep brown skin with pink marks.

He takes a bus 8 miles away to a dermatologist in Grand Blanc, Mich., but has gotten no relief. He wonders if he'll ever stop itching.

“The more and more you talk about it, the angrier you get because of the new ideas and the new things you can come up with — the reasons why they did this — and it hurts your feelings," said Wilson, who has been unemployed for about two years. "But you can’t do nothing about it, and somebody hurt you.”

He used to work as a cook, and was a machine operator for a while. Then he rehabbed houses until he tore a ligament in his shoulder and couldn’t do the work anymore.

Henry Louis Taylor, a professor of urban and regional planning and founding director for the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo, said ugly elements of racism and classism emerged in Flint, where more than 40% of residents like Wilson live in poverty and roughly 56% are African-American.

"When we think about racism, we think about it on impact of certain individuals," Taylor said. "You can’t get a job; you can’t move; you didn’t get a good education.

"But it also impacts where we live, the quality of housing, the abandonment of buildings, the infrastructure, the very pipes that deliver the water we drink to our homes," he said.

“Look at yourself for a moment. I will guarantee you there’s one thing that you do all day long and never think about it. You drink the water. You use the water in your cooking," Taylor said. "At no time … are you thinking, 'This is going kill me. This is going to mess up my life forever.' You’re not thinking that.”

Claudie Majied, Wilson’s neighbor, tried to be heard. She went to Flint City Council meetings to complain about the yellowish-brown water coming from her faucets.

Then-“Mayor Dayne Walling said it was fine, and his children would drink it," she said. "They had all the glasses of water sitting up there, telling us it was fine.

"They was ignoring us — just totally blowing us off," Majied said. "I said, ‘I’m not using it no more.’ ”

But by then, Majied, 55, was already sick. As a lung cancer survivor, her health was delicate to begin with.

Majied began to suffer from diarrhea, a problem that has yet to abate. She was throwing up, lost some hair, and started to develop rashes.

She has a new growth on her lungs, too.

“I’ve been very depressed about it with me already being sick and dealing with this, too, the water,” Majied said. A mother of five and grandmother of 10, she said she has been hospitalized nine times in 18 months.

Majied, who grew up in Flint and Little Rock, Ark., wants to leave.

“I always said I would never go back to the South,” she said. “But I’d run back to the South right now. It is worse up here."

Scrambling for solutions

Wilson wants to take action but believes that circumstances tie his his hands. He doesn't have Internet access, so he said he often doesn't find out when civil-rights protests, free clinics and informational meetings are happening.

And even when he does find out about them, he can't get there unless he walks, takes a bus or a friend drives him.

"I need to do something," he said. "I want to go and protest. I want to hold my signs up, too. This affected my life seriously."

In late January, Wilson took a bus to Lansing, Mich., where petitioners seeking to recall the governor sat before the state Board of Canvassers. The experience jarred him.

"When I went to Lansing and we got inside the building, those people looked at us so evil, and they treated us so bad," he said. "I had never seen anything like that in my life.

"I know there is such a thing as racism. But one man was sitting up there, and he looked at us with the coldest eyes," Wilson said

Wilson couldn't get to the march in late February that the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow: PUSH Coalition staged on the city's water plant.

"I knew about it, but I didn't have no transportation," he said. "My car don't have no license plate on it."

Even if it did, Wilson doesn't have a driver's license.

Majied said she's just tired of it all.

"It wouldn't have happened in a rich community," she said. "They thought we didn’t matter because we are poor."

And the lead poisoning has condemned the city's children to problems throughout their lives, Majied said.

"Half of us wants to get out of here. Half of us can’t get out of here," she said. "You need to do something to help us. ... You did this. We didn’t do this."