On June 12, 2014, six weeks after Emergency Manager Darnell Earley switched the water supply of Flint, Michigan, to the Flint River, residents complained about the smell and quality of the water. Already, those privileged with disposable income were switching to bottled water. Flint Mayor Dayne Walling commented he believed “people are wasting their precious money buying bottled water.”
Flash forward twenty months, to February 2016: Flint’s residents are still “wasting their precious money”, but now they spend it by continuing to pay for running water in their homes, despite the plethora of evidence demonstrating the presence of lead. The Flint water crisis is defined by the complete and deliberate mishandling of the situation by the local and state governments, a breakdown that would likely not have been as severe had Flint’s residents possessed sufficient agency to broadcast their struggle and demand an effective government response.
As those who have followed the crisis likely already know, Flint was in a receivership at the time the decision was made to switch the water supply, which means Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Emergency Managers to control Flint’s finances. But why was Flint placed into receivership at all? The NAACP in Michigan has filed a lawsuit arguing that the legislation that permits receiverships is unfairly applied to the state’s African-American populations. When majority white cities have fiscal deficits, their citizens are allowed to retain control of their local government. Flint and other majority African-American cities are not afforded that right.
A local government’s dire economic straits are not a legitimate cause for disenfranchisement of that community. When people are not allowed to vote for who represents them, it not only undermines the basic tenets of democracy – the right to choose one’s leaders and ensure that government is responsible to one’s demands – but also ensures that enacted policies are even less likely to benefit residents who have been rendered voiceless. Historically, the US government on both the federal and state level have insidiously attempted to undermine African-American voting rights, from Jim Crow to today’s mass incarceration that disproportionately targets black communities and ensures convicted felons are permanently prohibited from voting. Putting low-income Michigan cities into receivership is the latest tool of oppression used by the US government to keep people of color silent and powerless.
Voting rights are a feminist issue. A lack of government accountability is a feminist issue. Economic oppression is a feminist issue. Each of these lends itself in turn to further marginalization of poor communities and communities of color. Flint, Michigan is at the intersection of these three cogs in the gear of systemic racism. The water crisis is merely the physical manifestation of a years-long campaign of oppression against not only the people of Flint, but poor communities of color in Michigan.
Even outside the racialized politics that resulted in the switch to the Flint River’s water, the government’s dishonesty and ineptitude in handling the crisis once public health concerns were brought to their attention demonstrate the utter disregard the state of Michigan felt for Flint’s residents. Simply, the local government deliberately manipulated evidence and lied to the federal Environmental Protection Agency about the quality of the water.
The Flint water crisis is the latest in a long line of instances of environmental racism against communities of color in the US. When municipal waste centers or incinerators are built in black communities without the political leverage to successfully agitate for themselves, that’s environmental racism. When low-income housing is built on the sites of previous landfills, that’s environmental racism. When children face the effects of lead poisoning because of racist policies that place little value on the health of poor communities of color, and when government demonstrates a complete disinterest in acting to resolve a clear public health crisis, feminism demands that we act to remedy that injustice. The people of Flint have not been passive victims of the toxic mix of government thoughtlessness and apathy. They have successfully brought the crisis to the national consciousness, and we, as feminists, must stand with them as they express their justified anger in demanding safe drinking water for themselves and their families, and in seeking reparations for the harms already inflicted upon them.