Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission issued a scathing report on Friday, Feb. 17, asserting that “systemic racism” was at the root of Flint’s devastating water crisis.
The lengthy 135-page report addresses the history of racism in Flint and contends that discriminatory practices like redlining, white flight to the suburbs and implicit racial bias, among other things, all contributed to an economic situation in the city for which active emergency managers were very much needed, according to The Detroit News.
As part of their cost-cutting efforts, the city’s emergency managers decided to switch Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the highly contaminated Flint River in April 2014. Corrosive river water ultimately ate away at Flint’s aging lead pipes, causing the toxic element to leach into the drinking water supply. City residents repeatedly voiced concerns over their water, but it was months before Gov. Rick Snyder or his administration notified citizens that their water was contaminated.
Fast forward three years and the people of Flint are still struggling to get their hands on clean water. Although lead levels have fallen below the federal limit, city residents are still forced to rely on bottled water and home water filters for cooking, drinking and bathing.
The state’s sluggish response to Flint’s crippling water crisis was surely the direct result of longstanding systemic racism, the commission argued in its report. The board asserted that race played a major factor in the state’s handling of the crisis and pointed to officials’ efforts to de-legitimize residents’ suspicions that there were problems with their drinking water well before they were notified by the state.
“The people of Flint have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions — and your water pipes — for generations,” the report read.
“When the last of the civil lawsuits and attorney general criminal investigations are completed, and relief dollars from state and federal sources are exhausted, what will remain is a city and its people who will continue to fight against built-in barriers but whose voices — as a matter of public right — must never be stifled or quelled again,” it continued.
Authors of the report went on to argue that residents of Flint did not “enjoy” equal protection under environmental or public health laws nor did they have a say in the decisions leading up to the city’s water crisis.
In its document, which was based on the testimony of over 100 Flint residents, experts and community leaders, the commission also concluded that the state’s decision(s) and response to the public health crisis would’ve been vastly different if Michigan’s wealthier, predominately white communities had been impacted.
“We are not suggesting that those making decisions related to this crisis were racists … (but the) disparate response is the result of systemic racism that was built into the foundation and growth of Flint, its industry and suburban area,” the report argued. “Would the Flint water crisis have been allowed to happen in Birmingham, Ann Arbor or East Grand Rapids? We believe the answer is no, and that the vestiges of segregation and discrimination found in Flint made it a unique target. The lack of political clout left the residents with nowhere to turn, no way to have their voices heard.”
The Associated Press reported that the commission’s findings built on a report released in 2016 by a bipartisan task force created by Snyder, which determined that the water crisis was a case of “environmental injustice.” The governor also recently announced his hand-picked members of a new Environmental Justice Work Group aimed at bettering the state’s policies regarding environmental and health hazards, according to the news service.
In an effort to keep such a crisis from happening again, the state commission suggested that Michigan’s emergency manager law be replaced or amended to better evaluate the root cause(s) of Flint’s financial woes. It also recommended changes in the wake of the water crisis, such as advising the governor’s office to invite “experts on implicit bias” to train Cabinet members and all state departments, and creating additional ways for the public to contest certain decisions.
“Now is the time to address this flawed law,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint).”The people of Flint deserve the same level of safety, opportunity and justice that any other city in Michigan enjoys.”
So far, 13 officials have been charged for their roles in the water crisis.