—Peter C. Little
As anthropologist and disaster studies expert Gregory Button, author of Disaster Culture, recently put it, the unfolding disaster in Flint, Michigan is more than a case of urban lead contamination. Rather, it is a “morality play about structural violence.” [i] He encourages this way of thinking about this emerging national environmental health conflict because this “structural violence” he refers to is about a system of racial discrimination that is a social, political, economic, and infrastructural fact of life in the US. Thinking about the structural violence of lead contamination requires a focus on how lead politics are exacerbated by deep-historical racial discrimination and ongoing poverty politics. As evidence for these lead-related disasters, Button sites a recent study [ii] published in the American Journal of Public Health that reports that while 41.5% of Flint residents are living below the poverty line—compared to the national average in 2014 of 14.8%—nearly 60% are African American. These are some bare facts of inequity that when meshed with toxic substance exposure risk exacerbates the bitter reality of recent Flint water crisis headlines.
The scale, scope, and depth of this man-made disaster are impressive, no doubt justifying the need for an environmental justice perspective on the matters at hand. Robert Bullard, long regarded a leader in the environmental justice community and a major source of inspiration for social scientists working on environmental and social justice conflicts, was recently interviewed about the Flint conflict. [iii] He speaks of a “reality” that goes beyond lead toxicity, drinking water distribution pipes, and a systemically fraudulent city, state, and federal government: “Unequal protection is a reality. The right to clean air, clean water and safe places for kids to play is something that affluent communities take for granted. But many low-income and minority communities don’t get parks, or street lights, or housing code enforcement, or safe drinking water. The cumulative environmental stresses in these neighborhoods create a toxic stew. And then government agencies don’t respond when people complain. The government’s nonresponse to Flint’s water crisis is on the scale of the federal nonresponse to Hurricane Katrina.”
The municipal, state, and federal response and mitigation plan unfolding in Flint also turns our attention to how such disasters are treated more as “technical” water management problems rather than human relations problems. Some critiques of the situation have suggested that “Working with communities to plan for better infrastructure, funding those developments, and adequately enforcing environmental laws will help reduce the number of future similar crises from becoming disasters.” [iv] While continuing to expose the contentious role of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his government counterparts in this complex disaster still matters, an underlying politics of uncertainty lingers as impacted residents try to navigate a living amid the circus of accusations and attempts to restore calm. Continuing to deal with what residents themselves are dealing with is of utmost importance and ought to be where local, state, and federal government energy and forms of empathy focus.
Peter C. Little is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rhode Island College. He is the author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press, 2014).