Flint, and the Country I Want

Two figures define the idealized America more than any other: Andrew Carnegie and Horatio Alger. Carnegie was the first generation Scottish immigrant who, through good luck and hard work, became the steel magnate of Pittsburgh and one of the richest people to have ever walked the earth. Alger was an author writing numerous rags-to-riches books about poor children “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” and achieving the wealth and leisure that America promised and continues to promise so many throngs of hopefuls.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan is a gut-wrenching violation of that promise. As Nate Silver’s blog FiveThirtyEight reported in their article What Went Wrong in Flint, it was a massive failure of government at every level that sickened a young generation, possibly for the rest of their lives.

As the article reports, it was a group of just a few unrelenting locals in Flint who exposed the lies that were fed up the food chain to state and federal regulators, and the willfully flawed testing protocols used by those regulators that confirmed everything was OK. I highly recommend reading the article.

The Michigan DEQ, though selective testing, found acceptable levels of lead (left). The more rigorous citizen testing initiative found disturbingly high levels (right). Source: FiveThirtyEight

CityLab, another one of my favorite blogs, further drove home a broader point – there is a strong correlation between water quality (and environmental quality in general) and race. Their article, If You Want Clean Water, Don’t Be Black in America, details the sad history of Blacks and, more recently, other minorities much more likely to live in places with tainted water and air. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder insisted that race played no role in the creation of this crisis. But with the overwhelming weight of history looming, the article notes:

So, when Snyder told MSNBC that there was “absolutely” no racism involved in this situation, good follow-up questions would have been: How can you be so absolute? How does this Flint case differ from the multitude of similar cases that make up the canon of environmental racism in America?

Lead is a thoroughly researched neurotoxin shown to have significant and lifelong negative impacts in children. The most troubling impact is cognitive development impairment, including learning disabilities, developmental delay, and hearing loss. The impact of lead is so deleterious that it has been (controversially) posited to have contributed to the decline of the Roman empire. There is no “safe” level of lead exposure, though the EPA has set thresholds at which point mitigation activities are mandated.

Governor Snyder was probably being honest that race, as an explicit factor, did not play any part in the decision to change water sources. And, from a certain perspective, that’s real progress compared to the days when George Wallace ran for president. But when a city that is 60% Black has their children exposed to such a well-understood and easily avoidable toxin as lead, we need to take a step back and look at the systems and institutions that produced these results.

In Massachusetts, a really obvious example of institutional racism that I often ponder is in Boston, one of the most segregated cities in America. When you look at the rapid transit map in the greater Boston area, you immediately notice a hole right down through the southern neighborhoods. These are the exact same neighborhoods which hold the highest proportion of Black residents in the city; one block group actually has 100% Black residents, according to the 2014 American Community Survey. You can see in the map below that there is no rapid transit in this part of the city (the section with the dark blue block groups).

Transit Inequality_edited
Dashed Green Line Extension added; as of now, it is unclear if GLX will actually be built.

You might notice that one part of the Red Line does travel adjacent to a majority Black area, the Mattapan “High Speed” Line (quotations my own). For anyone interested in the history of rail transit, I highly recommend taking a field trip to ride the Mattapan Trolley. It’s like stepping back into the 1940s, because that’s how old the trolley cars are. Needless to say, it is not high speed, is terrifying and rickety, and is laughably inferior to modern day rapid transit.

The only investment in rail rapid transit that could conceivably happen in the next decade is taking place not in these very dense, underserved neigborhoods. Rather, it is in Somerville and Medford (dashed green line in the map above). The Green Line Extension (GLX) will connect the current terminus in east Cambridge up through rapidly gentrifying east Somerville to Tufts University. Meanwhile, residents the largely minority neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan continue having to crawl along in buses on congested roadways.*

I’m sure that at no point did any transit planner sit down and say, “OK, we’re going to plan rail rapid transit in all of these neighborhoods EXCEPT this low-income minority neighborhood.” Just like I’m sure no one in the Flint debacle said, “OK, we’re going to allow this terrible water supply to be used because these residents are low-income and largely minority.” But in both cases it’s the sum of a huge number of small bad decisions and compromises that lead to these outcomes; wealthier residents are able to attend public meetings on a topic. They write letters to their elected representatives (or are the elected representatives), form civic groups to push for an amenity or issue, file lawsuits. And public sector officials, when prioritizing decisions, put these noisy, influential people first – with the intention, probably, of getting to those other parts of town later.

The Brookings Institution has a trove of articles on The Opportunity Gap in America – for example, half of Black Americans born in the bottom quintile income bracket stay in that bracket, compared to just 23% of white Americans.


opportunity gap
Source: Brookings Institution

And this opportunity gap, this structural bias, this headwind blowing on residents of these low-income minority communities is just so un-American.

As a public sector employee myself, the Flint crisis is a jolting reminder of the fundamental commitment that I and everyone else in government has made to the public good – not to optics, or career ambitions, or the path of least resistance. Children have been robbed of their futures because of a failure at every level of government. People who probably don’t think of themselves as racist have perpetrated a highly racist injustice. It is incumbent on us, the public sector, and civically engaged citizens, and adherents to whatever is left of the American dream, to work toward a country where Flint’s water crisis doesn’t happen again.

What happened in Flint is not the America of Carnegie and Alger. What happened in Flint is not the country I want.


*It is worth noting that MassDOT has a “RDM Study” to improve transit service in the area I described in Boston. Furthermore, changes have been made to the commuter rail line that goes through these neighborhoods, improving access to RDM residents. This is a good start, but still an embarrassing gap on the rapid transit map.


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