Flint’s Water Crisis: A Story of Racial Injustice


In Psalm 94:20, the Psalmist speaks against rulers “who make injustice legal.” Before these makers of the law, the good suffer and the innocent die. At first glance, it might seem that in today’s world these ancient words would most closely relate to the dictatorships of other countries but not the United States. According to the celebrated ideals of our nation’s democracy, everyone possesses the right to vote on who will craft our laws, and thus the general welfare of the people are to be reflected in society’s governance. Yet ideals are not always reality. Thus, when I made a phone call to a community leader in Flint, Michigan named Claire McClinton to better understand the city’s lead poisoning crisis, she framed the situation as a battle of democracy versus dictatorship. Until recently, the people of Flint lacked the right to govern themselves. In 2011, Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law allowed the governor to appoint an unelected manager to any city deemed to be in financial disrepair, and Flint was one of those cities.
The history of the law embodies paternalism and racism. Despite a voter referendum that repealed the law in 2012, the legislature and governor put it back into place. As Louise Seamster and Jessica Welburn have noted in their article “How a Racist System Has Poisoned the Water in Flint, Mich.,” the governor has mainly appointed managers to cities with majority black populations. While over half of the black population in Michigan has experienced an emergency manager, only 2 percent of whites have. Flint has a population that is 52% black, and the protection of the population’s health fell by the wayside in an effort to save money. In 2014, Flint’s emergency manager decided it was financially prudent to switch the city’s water supply from Detroit to the heavily polluted Flint River. Ultimately, this is just one chapter in a longer story of Flint’s collective disenfranchisement and endangerment. As the Rev. Deborah Conrad of Woodside United Church of Christ in Flint notes, an earlier chapter pertains to deindustrialization: as the auto industry with all its tax revenue abandoned Flint so did the state government.
One needs to know these chapters of history to fully understand the present reality of Flint. With such knowledge, one should not be surprised to hear a sheriff, who after going door to door in Flint listening to its residents, observed, “They have lost faith in the capacity of government to work with them. And it’s hard to say, ‘You know, you’re wrong.'” In many ways, the story of Flint bears out the truth of a statement that the perceptive scholar Manning Marable once made: “In order for American democracy finally to become a reality for all of its citizens, we must, first, understand historically how and why these deep structures of racial inequality came into being, and how they were most decisively expressed in the daily lives and life chances of minorities and whites alike.”
In the end, the Psalmist may have more to say to us today than many of us might first admit. When we finally begin to listen and to learn, then we shall be ready to write a new chapter in the story of our nation, a chapter defined by justice.

The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt serves the national headquarters of the United Church of Christ as the Minister for Environmental Justice.

One thought on “Flint’s Water Crisis: A Story of Racial Injustice

  1. My heart goes out to everyone in Flint Michigan .
    Democracy has to be restored to We the people .It has to work for the highest good of all or injustices will continue to come to the surface .However there would be no injustice if we did Justice in the first place .
    Humans believe in lack ,be it lack of money ,lack of food ,lack of housing,even lack of God .This is an illusion it looks like in some places on Earth there is a lack of resources but this is a manufacturing of poverty with the tools of greed .
    Our guiding principles have to be oneness and enoughness !
    We need to act like we are one and begin to share our resources .As no one is truly well off while others are dying .Only beings of lower consciousness would create a world where 5% of the world controls 95% of the planets resources .So the work has to be in raising the collective consciousness to see that what is good for the many is good for the few .America spends trillions on weapons of defence and offence but water is not a priority .We all need good clean water to drink .Before the Europeans got to America you could drink out of any stream now you would be lucky to not get ill.Is this not progress towards your demise .We are slowly destroying nature as it naturally is in an attempt to experience ourselves as we naturally are .We do not think there is enough to go around so we fight,compete ,steel ,hoard and create economic and political systems that justify this illusion of insufficiency .
    It’s all a trick of our imagination made up from fallacies based upon beliefs that come from old books .Thats one thing that Organised Religion does not allow .No new thoughts allowed is its mantra and we wonder why the world is in a mess .A new cultural story will have to told if we want the world to change .
    Humans are inherently good and there is no seperatiion between god which is just another name for life and all of us .The greatest truths start with the greatest blasphemes .

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