Environmental Racism: Critical Essay

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Environmental Racism in Flint, Michigan

How did racial and economic conditions develop to become a blatant example of environmental racism in the Flint Michigan water crisis? This question was answered by examining articles that have described the conditions in Flint, Michigan leading up to the crisis and emphasized how racial and economic conditions played a significant role in its creation. This topic interested me because it is such a clear example of how structural inequality in general, and environmental racism specifically, have a serious impact on primarily minority and disadvantaged communities in the US. I examined several scholarly articles that were retrieved from google scholar. I reviewed eight scholarly articles from different sources. I read these articles over approximately one week. Each of them approaches the issue of environmental racism in Flint in slightly different ways but all come to similar conclusions regarding the conditions that existed that allowed the Flint crisis to occur.

Flint had been a thriving industrial city, in the mid-twentieth century, however, in the 1980s, these conditions began to change. The auto industry, which had been a strong economic force in Flint, started to make significant changes at that time, shifting many jobs overseas and leaving Flint with few other employment options. As a result, “Flint has never recovered from the devastation of deindustrialization” (Pulido, 2016). Facing difficult economic circumstances, Flint experienced an extended period in which white privileged citizens left the city, leaving it to be mostly poor and minority, with high crime rates, creating a situation in which the city had little economic support from its tax base. As Pulido describes, “Flint was abandoned by capital decades ago, and as it became an increasingly poor and Black place, it was also abandoned by the local state. This abandonment can be seen in shrinking services, infrastructure investment, and democratic practices.” (Pulito, 2016, p. 2).

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, Flint’s infrastructure suffered dramatically and state leaders determined that they had to make significant changes to be able to prevent the city from going into bankruptcy. The nationwide recession of 2008 led to an even greater loss of jobs and housing. “In 2011, Governor Rick Snyder declared Flint to be in financial crisis and placed the city under emergency management which took the control out of the hands of local government.” In 2011 he declared Flint to be in a financial crisis and placed it under emergency management.

A municipal Emergency Fiscal Manager (EFM) was appointed by the governor. (Pulido, 2016, p. 1). The EFM believed one significant way to save money would be to change the source of water for the city from the Detroit River to the Flint River. The Flint River was historically polluted from years of industrial activity and was never considered suitable for human use. The extremely toxic levels of lead and other contaminants in the water led to several deaths and the lead poisoning of many residents. How this was ever allowed to happen is a clear example of environmental racism (Pulido, 2016). The levels of lead in Flint water weren’t just slightly above normal, they were extremely toxic, and in some cases, “the lead was so high it could be considered hazardous waste” (Mckenna, 2018, p. 48).

The Flint water crisis is an example of environmental racism due to the fact that if the same incident were to happen in a predominantly white wealthy neighborhood, people in power would care to make changes and those changes would actually occur. In reality, this incident wouldn’t happen in a predominantly white wealthy neighborhood because the people in positions of power would actually listen to the citizens who reside in that town. Those who hold positions of power in Flint may have said that it wasn’t their intention for this to have happened, but, the results show that actions speak louder than words. As Campbell, Greenberg, Mankikar, and Ross describe in their case study on Flint,

“Environmental justice or injustice, therefore, is not about intent. Rather, it is about process and results—fair treatment, equal protection, and meaningful participation in neutral forums that honor human dignity...The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice. Flint residents, who are majority Black or African American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities” (Campbell, 2016, p. 5). Given the amount of information that was available concerning the quality of the Flint River water, it is not possible for the state officials to claim that they were trying to make decisions in the best interest of Flint residents.

Further evidence of the harm the Flint River water was doing became very clear as lead testing on Flint children was done. Levels were found to be almost twice as high following the switch of water sources, and even when some state officials began to express concern, they were ignored by the health department, and once again told that the water was safe (Campbell, 2016) pg 2. These high levels of lead in Flint’s children can have significant long-term effects, leading to “decrements in intelligence, development, behavior, attention, and other neurological functions” (Campbell, 2016, p. 2).

Failures by several key governmental groups lead to and allowed the Flint crisis to continue. The Flint Water Advisory Task Force determined that the findings of the The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) stating that Flint water was safe, were completely false. Further, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHD) failed to act on information that would have protected the public. While government agencies are often accused of ineffective leadership, the Flint case has been described by many as more specifically a case of environmental injustice and racism as opposed to simply a lack of effective leadership. Dr. Robert Bullard, the dean of the School of Public Health at Texas Southern University describes the Flint situation as a “Classic case of environmental racism… environmental racism is real...so real that even having the facts, having the documentation and having the information has never been enough to provide equal protection for people of color and poor people” (Campbell, 2016).

In an interview with Silvia Hood Washington, Dr. David Pellow describes the relatively inexpensive ways in which the Flint water crisis could’ve been prevented. He, like so many others, finds the Flint crisis to be a clear example of environmental racism. He states, “Again, we have a community of color, of working-class folks whose well-being, health, and welfare are really not the priority, apparently, for the unelected and appointed emergency manager. Saving money should be a priority. We should always be fiscally responsible. But if you do so at the expense of human health, then we really have a problem.” (Washingoton, Pellow, 2016). He goes on to describe the crisis as a “Democracy deficit”, as the people who were in charge who were in charge of the water situation were not elected by the Flint citizens, but rather, appointed by the governor, further taking control over their own safety away from Flint minorities (Washington, Pellow, 2016).

Had the Michigan government agencies responsible for providing safe water to its citizens recognized and acknowledged the risk of the Flint River water, they might not even then have acted on this information. As Dawson describes, “Regulators have the tendency to underestimate environmental health risks in minority communities because they fail to adequately consider multiple, cumulative, and existing exposures to environmental toxins.” (Dawson, 2001, p. 372). They would likely have viewed information regarding poor water quality in a vacuum, not understanding the many other sources of risk to the health of minority groups.

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The tragedy of the Flint case lies in the structural changes in power that occurred when the governor took the decision-making power out of the hands of locally elected citizens and placed it in the hands of appointed state officials. Had local government control and decision-making remained in local hands, the disastrous decision to use the poisoned Flint River as the city’s water source certainly would not have happened. The governor's appointment of an EFM not only eliminated the democratic process for Flint citizens but also exposed them to blatant racist decision-making. On a basic level, racism may be considered to be about the thoughts that some people have about people that don’t look like them. Racism moves from this intellectual idea to a structural reality when these thoughts result in policies. As Pulido writes, “It is one of those rare moments when the larger public can actually “see” the structural nature of environmental racism” (Pulido, 2016, p. 2).

Bullard goes on to describe how the structure of environmental protection in the United States is not only ineffective but its negative effects are strongly skewed to the disadvantaged citizens of this country. He states,

“The dominant environmental protection paradigm institutionalizes unequal enforcement, trades human health for profit, places the burden of proof on the 'victims' and not the polluting industry, legitimates human exposure to harmful chemicals, pesticides, and hazardous substances… exploits the vulnerability of economically and politically disenfranchised communities” (Bullard, 1999, p. 7).

The events that occurred in Flint are a clear example of all of the above failings. When the Michigan state government took the political control over the water sourcing out of the local peoples' hands, they took any remaining power out of the hands of people who, due to their economic status as underprivileged, already had very little power or control. The EFM clearly traded the health of Flint's citizens for the economic benefit of the city and the state. Ironically, this approach failed to recognize the unintended cost of treating the widespread illness that the poisoned Flint River water caused for so many citizens.

This lack of environmental justice has been recognized by the United States Government for many years, and attempts have been made over the years to address this issue, although with no substantial progress as of the present. Mohai describes many efforts since the early 1990s to address the structural inequities in the environmental protection realm. The Office of Environmental Justice within the EPA and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council were created in the early 1990s. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed the Environmental Justice Executive Order. All of the above were created with the purpose of recognizing environmental injustice in the country and taking this into account when creating policy (Mohai, 2018, p. 15). Unfortunately, even with all of these structures that were set up with the intent of protecting citizens, the structures were ignored by The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Switching to the Flint River as a water source required changing treatment plants, and the Flint River treatment plant did not have the necessary corrosion controls, allowing for poisonous substances to enter the water. The MDEQ “failed to require optimized corrosion control in the treatment of the water, a critical failure “in contradiction to long-standing federal policy” (Mohai, 2018, p. 28).

It is difficult to imagine this type of failure to follow policy taking place in an affluent community. Those with the voices that come with privilege would never allow such failures to occur. Flint was in the unfortunate position of not only experiencing serious policy failure but also, lacking the power and voice to prevent or combat that failure. As described by Robinson, Shum, and Singh, “The demographics of Flint, Michigan, have made it the poster child for a community that was most at risk to experience the failure of our infrastructure in severe ways” (Robinson, Shum, Singh, 2018, p. 305).

The Flint water crisis was and should remain a shocking and disturbing example of the complete failure of both policy and those in power to equally protect all citizens from environmental dangers. The sad fact is that economic gain at the expense of the disadvantaged remains far too easy to achieve and continues the cycle repeatedly. Those without power are taken advantage of, put into even more difficult economic and social circumstances, and have even less control over their situation. While this is clearly a failure of policy developed out of structural inequality, the root of the problem remains deeply seeded racism that continues to exist in the United States and remains embedded across communities and institutions. Only with the continued persistence of organizations whose mission is to bring attention to and work to eliminate the effects of this environmental racism will measurable and sustained progress be made. It is essential to bring a greater voice to the disadvantaged communities that are most directly impacted by negative environmental forces. It is equally important for privileged communities to understand that it is also in their best interest to

The challenge for environmental justice movements continues, as courts and governmental agencies typically require solid evidence of intentional discrimination in claims of environmental racism. - (Robinson, Shum, Singh, 304).

the demographics of Flint, Michigan, have made it the poster child for a community that was most at risk to experience the failure of our infrastructure in severe ways. - (Robinson, Shum, Singh, 305).

A growing body of evidence reveals that people of color and low-income persons have borne greater environmental and health risks than the society at large in their neighborhoods, workplaces, and playgrounds. - Bullard 7 (Beasley, 1990a, b; Austin & Schill, 1991; Bullard, 1993c).

Bibliography

  1. Brian McKenna (2018) The Agony of Flint: Poisoned Water, Racism and the Specter of Neoliberal Fascism, Anthropology Now, 10:3, 45-58, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2018.1591053
  2. Campbell, C., Greenberg, R., Mankikar, D., & Ross, R. (2016). A Case Study of Environmental Injustice: The Failure in Flint. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(10), 951. doi: 10.3390/ijerph13100951
  3. Emily L. Dawson, Lessons Learned on Flint, Michigan: Managing Multiple Source Pollution in Urban Communities, 26 Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol'y Rev. 367 (2001), h ps://scholarship.law.wm.edu/ wmelpr/vol26/iss2/5
  4. Laura Pulido (2016) Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 27:3, 1-16, DOI: 10.1080/10455752.2016.1213013 Retrieved From: https://doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2016.1213013
  5. Mohai, P. (2018). ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE AND THE FLINT WATER CRISIS. Michigan Sociological Review, 32, 1-41. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/26528595
  6. Robert D. Bullard (1999) Dismantling Environmental Racism in the USA, Local Environment, 4:1, 5-19, DOI: 10.1080/13549839908725577
  7. Robinson, T. M., Shum, G., & Singh, S. (2018). Politically unhealthy: Flint’s fight against poverty, environmental racism, and dirty water. Journal of International Crisis and Risk Communication Research, 1(2), 303-324. h ps://doi.org/10.30658/jicrcr.1.2.6
  8. Washington, S. H., & Pellow, D. (2016). Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan: Interview with David Pellow, Ph.D. Environmental Justice, 9(2), 53–58. doi: 10.1089/env.2016.29003.sh
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Environmental Racism: Critical Essay. (2023, September 19). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/environmental-racism-critical-essay/
“Environmental Racism: Critical Essay.” Edubirdie, 19 Sept. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/environmental-racism-critical-essay/
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