Flint and the Myth of Environmental Racism [WEEKLY STANDARD] It was inattentive bureaucracy, not some pervasive and malignant power, that was to blame for bad water.

Published in The Weekly Standard

In 1989, a small videogame company called Maxis released SimCity, a city-building simulation, inaugurating what would become one of the best-selling computer game series of all time. SimCity’s aim was straightforward: As “mayor,” the player was challenged with designing and managing a metropolis. In addition to this open-ended mode, there were also goal-centered, time-contingent “scenarios” using preexisting municipalities. Three of the six scenarios were based on historical events. For example, with “Bern, 1965,” the player was tasked with constructing a mass-transit system to reduce traffic in the Swiss capital.

Maxis’s highly anticipated second installment, Sim-City 2000, released in 1994, featured three new scenarios to test the mettle of pajama-wearing urban planners. With “Oakland” — styled after the California city’s 1991 firestorm — the goal was to put out a colossal brushfire and grow the population from 41,000 to 50,000. With “Charleston,” the goal was to grow the population to 45,000 after a massive hurricane (based on 1989’s Hurricane Hugo).

Then there was a third, the goal for which was to revitalize an “automotive industrial town .  .  . hit hard by a recession” and increase its population from 10,000 to 21,000. The name of that scenario was “Flint.”

Flint, then, had become known to millions as an emblem of postindustrial destitution long before January 16, when President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in the Michigan city of 100,000 residents about 70 miles northwest of Detroit, in response to the water crisis there.

In 2011, Flint was placed in state receivership because its finances were in free fall. Two years later, the city council voted 7-1 to stop purchasing water from Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and decided to join the Karegnondi Water Authority. The state signed off on the swap, which was projected to save Flint $19 million over eight years. But because the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline would not be completed for at least three years, Flint needed to choose an interim source. So the spigot was turned in April 2014, switching the water supply from the Detroit River to the notoriously dirty Flint River.

Not long afterward, Flint residents began complaining about the taste and color of their tap water. Positive tests for E. coli prompted officials to pump more chlorine into the water supply. The city, at the same time, neglected to admix certain chemicals to prevent the extra chlorine from corroding the old pipes, causing lead to leach into the water. For 18 months, signs that the water contained dangerous levels of lead were ignored. Supplies were only rerouted beginning this past October.

Contact with lead can produce a litany of severe symptoms in adults, but it’s considered especially dangerous to children because it can interfere with nervous system development. It’s estimated that thousands of children in Flint were exposed to water containing enough lead to meet the EPA’s definition of “toxic waste.”

How could this calamity — or rather, this succession of calamities — have occurred? A number of high-profile current and former civil servants confessed that government was the culprit. Rep. Brenda Lawrence from Michigan, a ranking member of the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on interior, termed Flint a “man-made disaster created by the poor policy decisions of elected and career government officials.” Hillary Clinton was even more forceful. “Your government at all levels,” she told the audience at the March 6 Democratic debate in Flint, “have let you and your children and the people of Flint down.”

Yet among the gilded avenues of Hollywood and the majestic quads of America’s finest universities, a different supposition has carried the day: environmental racism. “Environmental racism,” J. Mijin Cha of Cornell University’s Worker Institute explained in a January 25 post for the Hill, “is the deliberate placing of hazardous waste and polluting industries near communities of color.”

It was filmmaker Michael Moore who started this ball rolling when he tweeted on December 19, “This is a racial killing. Flint MI is 60% black. When u knowingly poison a black city, u r committing a version of genocide #ArrestGovSnyder.” Similar, though less inflammatory, condemnations followed. “This would not have happened in Auburn Hills, the middle class, mostly white suburb of Detroit,” declared Lawrence Ware, professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center, on CounterPunch. “If this were Beverly Hills,” Def Jam cofounder Russell Simmons averred in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, “it would be a minute before we found out and a second before someone would be blamed and be brought up on charges.”

Among the gilded avenues of Hollywood and the majestic quads of America's finest universities, a different supposition has carried the day: environmental racism.

Many who describe Flint’s disaster as an instance of environmental racism in America further maintain that environmental racism is a manifestation of a broader phenomenon: structural racism. Kemi Fuentes-George, opining at Salon, and Stephen Menendian of Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, writing at the Berkeley Blog, shot straight to “structural racism” as the explanation for Flint’s woes.

So what is “structural racism”? The international nonprofit Aspen Institute defines it as a “system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.” As for Flint, Lawrence Ware offered that the structural character of environmental racism expressed itself as “a kind of institutional empathy gap” that thwarted Michigan’s state government from reacting promptly to ominous developments.

Ignored amid the torrent of impassioned commentary unleashed by Flint was the fact that two of the worst environmental crises directly affecting human populations in modern American history struck predominantly white (working-class) towns. The pollution of Love Canal, N.Y., and Times Beach, Mo., was disastrous enough to turn both into ghost towns, following relocations of the townspeople in 1980 and 1982, respectively.

In the case of Flint, there is far from a consensus that racial animus explains the governmental malpractice. Even in discourses otherwise focused on environmental racism, there are subtle allusions to low economic status. For instance, Robert D. Bullard, dean of Texas Southern University’s school of public affairs, asserted that Flint’s residents would have been treated differently “if they were not largely poor and majority African American” (emphasis added). Likewise, Julia Craven and Tyler Tynes wrote in the Huffington Post that the “contaminated water disaster flowing through one of Michigan’s poorest, blackest cities is tainted by poverty and racism.” Interestingly, even Menendian’s nearly 1,300-word post at the Berkeley Blog, “Structural racism in Flint, Michigan,” concentrated on poverty. The word “black” appeared only once.

A handful of voices were more forthright in conceding that economic status is a dynamic worth considering. “It’s both a class and race issue,” said Carl S. Taylor, sociology professor at Michigan State University. “When you have companies there, they dump everything into the water and into poor communities.” He added, “It’s not just about black lives mattering here. Poor people’s lives don’t matter [in Flint].” Be that as it may, Taylor’s quotations were found in Craven and Tynes’s Huffington Post piece, bearing the title “The Racist Roots of Flint’s Water Crisis.”

About 40 percent of Flint lives below the poverty line. And yet hardly anyone refers to the situation in Flint as a display of “environmental classism.” The litany of censures stressed that it was racial hostility, not some variant of class animosity, that caused the catastrophe in Flint. And the data (sporadically) put forth to justify claims of racial animus in environmental harm is slipshod, routinely failing to control for economic status.

Few, if any, who used environmental racism to elucidate events in Flint attempted to answer some vital questions. Is an environmental crisis similar to the one in Flint just as likely to affect an affluent African-American community? Do facilities shortcut safety measures because their managers and employees are convinced that the plight of African Americans will be ignored in the case of an environmental crisis? Or do facilities shortcut safety measures because their managers and employees are convinced that the poor lack the cohesion and status to call attention to malfeasance?

Do environmental crises disproportionately occur where there are African-American communities because the crises are somehow racially motivated, or are African-American communities situated in places where crises are more likely to occur due to economic conditions? In other words, is it possible that incidents involving, for example, landfills and smelters affect African-American communities more than white communities because the former are more prevalent and concentrated in urban settings, which tend to have greater number of landfills and smelters? Given the spectacular ascent of identity-politics partisans — those who scoff at the old-school left-wingers who still contend that class conflict is the engine of history—one wonders whether these are errors of omission or commission.

Here’s an illustration. Let’s say Orthodox Jews, despite being perhaps 0.002 percent of the U.S. population, could be shown to suffer 10 percent of all pedestrian injuries involving taxicabs on late-Friday evenings and early-Saturday mornings in American metropolises. It would be foolish to deduce that our nation’s taxicab industry is plagued by “structural racism” — or maybe “vehicular antisemitism” — because observant Jews are suffering injuries in crosswalks far out of proportion to their numbers. It would be key to take into consideration that many observant Jews live in cities where there are lots of taxicabs. It would also be important to note that observant Jews tend to walk more on Friday and Saturday because the Torah prohibits driving during the Sabbath.

The harm committed in Flint is thus suffused with racism, yet there are no specifically racist perpetrators. It is the institutions themselves that are racist. The longstanding virus of American racism has, thus, infected even the lowliest bodies of local government.

It’s undeniable that racism still exists in our country. Additionally, there’s no question that many places in which African Americans live were originally chosen as sites for harmful environmental practices because of bigotry, callousness, or simply a lack of political clout in the meetings where such siting decisions were made.

But this is not, first and foremost, what the purveyors of the environmental racism theory are saying. They are describing what transpired in Flint as the outcome of a very present current of racism. And by bringing “structure” into the discussion, they are invoking a brave new postmodern world, powered by perpetual conflict between forces of subjugation and domination. The harm committed in Flint is thus suffused with racism, yet there are no specifically racist perpetrators. It is the institutions themselves that are racist. The longstanding virus of American racism has, thus, infected even the lowliest bodies of local government.

What’s striking about the indignation involving Flint — and other cases of environmental racism — is the dearth of recommendations. For if it’s institutions broadly rather than specific people that are racist, then no one can really be held accountable for racist misdeeds. It’s as if for those perturbed by environmental racism, pointing out the existence of the foul phenomenon is an end in itself. Doing so advances an ideological agenda that insists the sins of America are well-nigh intractable. Despite the prevalence of cultural sensitivity training, scholars claim that environmental racism has only gotten worse. Either cultural sensitivity training is ill-equipped to face the hurdles for which it is designed or environmental racism is a defective concept, one that does not accurately reflect American conditions.

“Structural” analyses permit those who wield them to not only selectively exact convictions, but also selectively mete out pardons. Darnell Earley, the emergency manager who oversaw Flint’s switch in water supplies in 2014 (and earned $180,000 a year), was largely spared. And the EPA, which sat on its hands for months despite the requirements of Section 1414 of the Safe Drinking Water Act, has only recently started taking heat.

Michigan governor Rick Snyder, nevertheless, has encountered salvo after salvo of excoriation. Why? It wasn’t because he’s the state’s executive and, accordingly, the proverbial buck stops with him. Rather, it was because of an action that exacerbated structural racism. By placing Flint into state receivership, he robbed its residents of their dignity, thereby rendering them “voiceless.” “The response was muted,” Virgil Bernero, the mayor of nearby Lansing, told the Huffington Post. “The state response was sluggish and irresponsible. That does have something to do with the people being voiceless.”

Those whose minds have not been blessed with an exclusive liberal arts education will likely arrive at a far less conspiratorial conclusion: It was inattentive bureaucracy, not some pervasive and malignant power, that was to blame for Flint’s water supply. Bad decisions were made not because a gaggle of public employees were subconsciously willing to poison an African-American community but because public employees often have little incentive to sound the alarm and “rock the boat.”

And that’s why the idea of environmental racism is so injurious. It denigrates hardworking civil servants by positing that they are malicious rather than careless or irresponsible. More important, it hurts the disadvantaged because it doesn’t show the way towards any reliable paths for progress. As long as the universalist mantra “all lives matter” is shouted down by certain factions of the left, the issues that brought about Flint’s environmental devastation will likely persist, further damaging the lives of poor blacks as well as poor whites.

In SimCity 2000, the optimal strategy for reviving “Flint” and, therefore, conquering the scenario of the “automotive industrial town” was to dramatically lower commercial taxes, encouraging private enterprise to replace public administration. One can only imagine how dumbfounded players would have been if they had been tasked instead with expunging structural racism.

Jonathan Bronitsky

About Jonathan Bronitsky

A politico who loves impressionist art, esoteric architecture, electronica, jazz, and racquet sports.