Foucault (1976) describes biopower as the mechanisms and techniques that manage and control the lives of a population. The powerful statement “to make life, or to let die” (Foucault, 1976), highlights two different ways of looking at biopower and the state. On one hand, the main objective of the state is to make people live and protect them from harm, however, the state also has the power to ignore the pain and suffering of certain groups.
I think that the Flint water crisis is an example of how the state has the power to ‘let people die’ and shows how actions of the state can harm certain people, rather than make them live. The water source in Flint was switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint river in 2014, in an attempt to save money. Residents noticed that something was not right with the smell, taste, and color of the water straight away, yet their concerns and complaints were repeatedly ignored and dismissed by those in authority. Despite tests clearly stating that the water contained dangerous chemicals and was not safe to drink, and residents reporting health issues, the state ignored these concerns and frequently reassured the people of Flint. It wasn’t until a year later in 2015, that the water was reconnected to the previous source, however, this did not solve any problems, as the damage was already done.
I believe that this event can be linked to Foucault’s idea of the need for racism within biopower – as he questions how a state that is designed to protect and improve the population, can also kill. When Foucault (1976) speaks of racism, it is not necessarily limited to ethnicity, it is essentially any group that is deemed inferior or the ‘other’. Therefore, it is important to note that almost 60% of Flint residents are black, and 40% are under the poverty line (US census, 2018). The fact that it took so long for the state to listen and make changes, highlights how certain lives are arguably seen as less politically important, and that the state prioritizes saving money, over the health and wellbeing of certain sections of society. There were even allegations that the state had attempted to cover up statistics that highlighted increased levels of lead in the blood of children – this shows how the state actively ignored how thousands of children were being poisoned due to their actions.
However, I would say that Foucault’s (1976) ideas around racism and biopower do not completely fit this example, as he arguably overemphasizes the state’s desire to turn a certain group into a ‘threat’, or a group that needs to be killed in order to maintain the health of the population. As in this case, I would argue that it was not a deliberate attempt by a racist state to kill certain groups to make society ‘healthier’ or ‘purer’.