Michigan Governor Rick Snyder devoted his State of the State speech to the public health catastrophe in Flint that has poisoned its residents with high levels of lead in its water supply.
This failure has many parents, including Snyder. His administration placed an emergency manager in control of Flint’s finances, a manager who who was not elected by its citizens to do the will of the people of the city. Saving money by switching the water supply ignored the well-being of Flint residents, as was the state’s initially dismissive response to health complaints.
Snyder bears responsibility and blame, but he is not alone. The seeds for this catastrophe were sown decades before the 2011 managerial takeover. Deindustrialization and residential segregation shaped a city with low revenue, high unemployment, and the apathy and scorn of white Michiganders. That history allowed the past two years of lead poisoning.
Environmental racism is the systemic placing of toxic burdens upon people of color. It is an example of structural racism – not necessarily the conscious acts of individuals, but ways in which society is structured that creates patterns of unequal burdens.
The health catastrophe in Flint involves reliance on decaying infrastructure due to disinvestment in the region. Why these conditions led to the poisoning of black children involves structural patterns in residential real estate practices, as well as recent political decisions. Environmental Justice movements have fought for safer, healthier communities for decades, including African American residents opposing waste siting in Houston (1978) and Warren County (1982), and Latino residents of Chicago protesting dirty coal-burning power plants in their neighborhoods in this century.
Yet inequalities persist. They are rooted deeply in land-use patterns, employment patterns, and in cultural stereotypes that privilege whites to have clean, safe communities at the expense of people of color. Noxious stereotypes that nonwhite people were somehow less clean than whites emerged in the nineteenth century, stereotypes that have informed who handles waste and where waste is located. Sociologists observed national patterns of inequities by the late twentieth century. Thirty years ago, the report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States concluded exposure to toxic pollution was determined by race above all other variables, including class, region, and urban/rural density. Ten years ago, a followup report revealed more continuities than change. Flint is further continuity.
The eyes of the nation are on Flint in 2016, but they could easily be on lead-contaminated communities in East New York or Gary, Indiana. Flint is the most conspicuous example of environmental racism in the United States. There are so many examples, however, that a bimonthly journal (Environmental Justice) has filled eight volumes of articles chronicling environmental inequalities. Governor Snyder’s promise that he will fix the present crisis flies in the face of his past actions, the history of Flint, and majority-minority communities across the United States. Recognizing this history is crucial to fixing what ails Flint.
Carl A. Zimring is Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute. He is the author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (NYU Press, 2016).