The Flint Water Crisis Is a Result of Systemic Racism and History of Segregation

A new report tracks what led to the disaster—and how to prevent it from happening again.

Photo Credit: Barbara Kalbfleisch/Shutterstock

Reprinted with permission of For more news from a racial justice perspective, sign up to receive weekly Colorlines Direct.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission has confirmed what activists and residents in Flint, Michigan have been saying for well over a year: The city’s water crisis that resulted in mass lead poisoning stemmed from systemic racism.

The commission recently released a 130-page report that it had been working on since January 2016. The report makes clear that it is "not suggesting that those making decisions related to this crisis were racists, or meant to treat Flint any differently because it is a community primarily made up by people of color." Instead, the “systemic racism that was built into the foundation and growth of Flint” was behind the state's inefficient response.

The commission spoke to residents, toured neighborhoods and interviewed experts on the city’s history, environmental justice and local governance. “Reviewing the historical governmental actions impacting the living and health conditions of Flint residents, i.e., the legacy of Flint, was sobering and left a deep impression,” the report states.

Understanding the history of the predominantly Black city is essential in preventing future Flints, argues the report. 

It reads:

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC or Commission) believes that to properly and completely assess the causes of the Flint water crisis, we must look back much further. We believe the underlying issue is historical and systemic, and dates back nearly a century, and has at its foundation race and segregation of the Flint community. These historical policies, practices, laws and norms fostered and perpetuated separation of race, wealth and opportunity.

The commission lays out recommendations to help ensure a crisis like Flint does not occur again in the state.  They provide a framework other states could look too, as well. Recommendations include:

  1. The state’s Department of Civil Rights, which is responsible for protecting its constituents from discrimination, must improve at listening to its people. Their priorities must align with constituents'. Part of this includes bringing scheduled meetings to affected communities when appropriate.
  2. The governor should mandate implicit bias training to his cabinet, all state departments and Mission Flint, the response group made up of key administration memebers which Governor Rick Snyder put together to discuss the incident. This would help state employees understand how structural racism affects decision making.
  3. Michigan legislators should draft an environmental justice plan that welcomes public opinion and involvement.
  4. The state should replace or restructure its emergency manager law, which contributed to Flint’s water crisis when the emergency manager decided to change the city’s water source with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's approval.

Find the full list of recommendations and the complete report here.

Yessenia Funes is the climate justice reporter for Colorlines. She was previously an editor at YES! Magazine, where she covered racial justice with a solutions lens. Her work has appeared in Grist, AlterNet, Public Radio International, and Truthout. Follow Yessenia on Twitter @yessfun.

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