You can’t write about the drinking water debacle in Flint, Michigan, without first recognizing the depth of the tragedy. For more than a year, an entire city was exposed to the risk of lead poisoning. Of the people we already know have been poisoned, more than half are children under the age of six. Those children will suffer neurological damage for the rest of their lives. Long after you and I are gone, some of them will still be living a life diminished. No matter what happens now, that cannot be undone. No overdue apology, no grudging mea culpa, no release of emails, and no state-of-emergency declaration can undo that damage. Take a moment and imagine how you’d react if you were that child’s mother or father.
That terrible fact makes it all the more infuriating that this disaster can’t be called an accident. Instead, it was the inevitable result of a callous and reckless disregard for human life — specifically, the lives of the people who live in Flint, most of whom are black and many of whom are poor. When Governor Rick Snyder released 274 pages of heavily censored emails about the crisis this week, the cruel arrogance on display only made you wonder about the redacted parts that were so much worse they couldn’t bear to make public. Here’s how the New York Times summarized the released portions:
A top aide to Michigan’s governor referred to people raising questions about the quality of Flint’s water as an “anti-everything group.” Other critics were accused of turning complaints about water into a “political football.” And worrisome findings about lead by a concerned pediatrician were dismissed as “data,” in quotes.
The consequences for the people of Flint, though, are but one especially horrible example of what is happening to minority and low-income communities everywhere and every day. Pick any type of pollution — then look to see who is the most exposed and the most harmed. Take lead, for instance. Although lead exposure had declined overall, African American children are five times more likely to be poisoned than white children. Why? In part because the neighborhoods where they live are more likely to have been exposed to lead when cars still used leaded gas. Decades later, children are still paying a price.
Governor Snyder and his Department of Environmental Quality are rightly being castigated not only for ignoring the problem but also for actively denying, in the face of all evidence, that Flint’s water was contaminated. But their culpability for this tragedy extends even further. Before Flint’s water was compromised, its democracy was.