British Home Secretary Theresa May called the poisoning “deeply disturbing”, and argued, “It goes without saying that this was a blatant and unacceptable breach of the fundamental tenets of… law and civilized behavior.” She referred to the Russian state’s involvement in poisoning Alexander Litvinenko. But she could have been talking about Michigan.
In his state address, Governor Synder offered apologies, prayers and ostensive outrage at a “crisis” and a “catastrophe,” that apparently emerged from unknown, agentless actions; “Mistakes were made.” By whom? The Flint water crisis was borne of state decisions that have, like most institutional policies and practices in America, jeopardized Black lives.
Decisions like that made in January 2014–a few months before Flint tried to save money by switching to river water–wherein the state allocated $2,147,000 to three new police initiatives. Everything we know about policing in this country suggests that these initiatives are likely to produce excessively aggressive surveillance, control, and physical force. Operation Fresh Start, at a cost of $250,000 for one day, was actually designed to build community trust by assisting area residents “who through various reasons, have found themselves in an untenable situation where they are included in the population of individuals who have active arrest warrants.”
Again, this language evokes a mysterious, agentless process that sucked residents into a vortex of arrest warrants. But warrants result from decisions–from purposeful police targeting of “misdemeanors, victimless crimes, or civil infractions.” It strains credulity to argue that warrants would have fallen harder on a population other than Flint’s Black residents (e.g., see Ferguson). And yet, Flint launched the program in the smallest zip code by far (48502), one encompassing a census tract that is 45% White, higher than the citywide average, 37%. Thus, a fresh start was bequeathed to an area with few residents, where beneficiaries would be disproportionately White.
Decisions like those made to cast non-potable, poisonous water as harmless, persuading residents that adults and babies alike should consume Flint’s river water (and mandating that WIC could not cover the costs of bottled water). State officials continually belittled residents’ concerns, branding them mere “aesthetics”. They described total coliform and E. Coli contamination as a “hiccup”; and asserted that regarding TTHMs, “it’s not like an eminent [sic] threat to public health.”
Decisions like portraying the remediation of lead contamination as an individual responsibility. Officials championed kitchen water filters to provide “added comfort,” entreated the flushing of faucets and usage of cold water, and argued that lead can leach from myriad home sources including fixtures, faucets, and lead based paint. The state marshaled answers to FAQs about replacing “leaded materials” with bold print declarations that service pipes on private property are a homeowner’s responsibility.
Public health scholars argue that although the government suggests that we wash our cutting boards thoroughly, that is only necessary when we consume meat from a food system where contamination is likely. Focusing on individual behavior is ineffective as a public health strategy, and even if it were not, racial inequalities in money, power and human capital make it more difficult for Black residents to mobilize their own personal public health infrastructures.
The Flint water crisis will produce a cascade of negative health and social consequences: illnesses caused directly by waterborne pathogens and toxic chemicals; economic losses from expenditures on bottled water, medical bills, lost wages, unemployment, and property devaluation; physiological dysregulation from stress, worry and sleeplessness; cognitive, learning, and behavioral challenges. It’s the House that Jack Built.
Snyder proclaimed that he would see to it that “Anyone with lingering health care concerns is quickly, compassionately and effectively treated. I know there will be long- term consequences. But I want you to know that we’ll be there with long-term solutions for as long as it takes to make this right.” Indeed. Black children confront an educational system that is more concerned with controlling their bodies than enriching their minds. It is unlikely in the extreme that a child with lead-induced impairments will receive the long-term assistance she needs to be successful. Much more likely is a trajectory of suspensions and other punitive measures for behavioral difficulties. And if a boy’s trajectory culminates in the school-to-prison pipeline, no one will ask whether he experienced lead poisoning. He’ll just be another morally deficient criminalblackman.
And so Governor Synder’s assurances ring false. The U.S. has rarely saw fit to redress the long-term repercussions of racist state actions. Andrew R. Highsmith has shown that Flint’s urban renewal program turned Black homeowners into public housing tenants, and no long-term assistance was at hand to recompense their loss of wealth. Rather, they were met with a hardening of the city’s color line. Blatant state neglect and the resulting catastrophic are a recurring American nightmare (e.g., see Katrina). Like cigarettes, American state policies are hazardous to Black health. When used as directed, they cause harm.
This post is part of the “Black Future Month” series produced by The Huffington Post and Black Lives Matter Network for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will look at one of 29 different cultural and political issues affecting Black lives, from education to criminal-justice reform. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #BlackFutureMonth.