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Justice for Flint


David Stradling is Associate Dean for Humanities and Professor of History in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Cincinnati. He and Richard Stradling wrote Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).

In the last few weeks we’ve seen a rush of stories about the disastrous decision to switch Flint’s water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River. On January 15, the New York Times even ran an editorial blasting the state of Michigan, which had made the switch as part of a cost-cutting plan and, it turned out, subjected the residents of Flint to over two years of toxic levels of lead.[1]

It is important to remember that the story began to break nationally nearly a year ago. As early as March 2015, the New York Times ran a lengthy article about the water’s odor and cloudiness, complete with photos of residents who complained of health problems and the inability to drink water from their taps after the city had switched sources a year earlier.[2] The story took a troubling turn last fall, when Virginia Tech scientists released the results of their testing. Flint’s water was more than smelly and cloudy. It was contaminated with lead, and so were the city’s children.[3] The Flint River water, loaded with chlorine to prevent biological contamination, had not been treated to reduce its corrosive effects on the city’s pipes. The lead came not from the suspect river, but from the archaic system into which it flowed. Today, still without potable water long after the city switched back to the Detroit system, the residents of Flint are devastated. The public health consequences of this mismanagement might never be quantified, and the cost of a permanent fix could run over a billion dollars.

Historians attempting to contextualize this story might place the Flint disaster in the broader narrative of the nation’s aging infrastructure. As tragic as Flint’s story is, its lead-laden delivery system is hardly unique. Cities across the nation, especially older ones, are serviced by systems—water, sewer, and transportation—that are in urgent need of investment. We should place this story of aging infrastructure within the context of the urban crisis, the decades-long economic and cultural disinvestment in American cities. Flint’s famous decline, losing tens of thousands of jobs and nearly half of its population since 1970, is only a dramatic example of a common trajectory.

Other scholars, including David Rosner, have placed the Flint story in the context of the long history of lead poisoning, in which urban and minority residents have been disproportionately victimized by both leaded gasoline and lead paint, the former poisoning generations of Americans, and the latter still plaguing residents in unremediated and poorly maintained buildings. Rosner has even pointed out the bitter irony that Flint—once nearly a General Motors company town—is now so drenched in lead. After all, it was General Motors that helped the nation adopt leaded gasoline and ensured that researchers would be slow to discover the terrible public health consequences of that technological turn.[4]

Environmental Sociologist Paul Mohai, of the University of Michigan, has also helped frame the story, calling it “one of the biggest environmental justice disasters” in American history. Flint’s population is 57% African American and 40% impoverished, and Mohai isn’t the only person who thinks these demographics played a role in the initial mismanagement and the slow response of government at every level. On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has asserted, “If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action.” [5]

I take the slow response to the unfolding disaster to be the most instructive aspect of the story. The sluggish reaction in government, where it matters most, and in the press, which at first treated unpotable water in an American city as a curiosity rather than a tragedy, reflects a broader cultural relationship with distressed—mostly Midwestern—cities. The American public had largely given up on Flint and places like it by the time Michael Moore made Roger & Me (1989) to call attention to the plight of a city abandoned by General Motors. The national response then, and no doubt now, was mostly a thankfulness about not having to live in Flint or Gary or Youngstown or Donora or any similar postindustrial city.

My brother Richard and I spent much of the last decade researching and writing about a city that has experienced a comparable, though less dramatic, trajectory: Cleveland. We were drawn to the city by its burning Cuyahoga River, but our work was drawn into the broader urban environmental crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s by the vision of then mayor Carl Stokes. The first African American mayor of a large American city, Stokes had grown up in poverty, and while in office he worked diligently to solve the many problems that ran through Cleveland. He spoke eloquently about water pollution, especially in Lake Erie, and air pollution, especially from the city’s steel mills, and of the many consequences of concentrated poverty, including poor housing and inadequate access to health care. In the end, after four frustrating years in office, Stokes took stock of his modest accomplishments in Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography (1973). In addition to describing the headwinds of racism, which impeded the mayor personally and hindered the city significantly, Stokes emphasized the inability of Cleveland to gain the support and resources it needed to solve its problems. “As mayor you are in control of territorial boundaries, but you have nothing with which to sustain yourself,” he wrote. “You cannot look to the people in the central city, for they have more needs than they have resources. You cannot look to the people in the suburbs, because that is why they are out there. You cannot look to the state, because the legislature is controlled by a suburban-rural coalition.” To Stokes, only the federal government could provide the help central cities needed.[6]

But now we see poor Flint, abandoned not just by the state and the still considerable wealth of suburban Michigan, but also by the EPA, one of the many federal agencies that has done so much to improve lives in urban America since its creation in 1970. Cleveland and many other cities have seen a reawakening in recent years, a very positive sign for our necessarily urban future, but the story of Flint reminds us that justice is not merely a legal construct. And it will take considerable investment to achieve.






[5] Mohai was quoted in the Washington Post and an Associated Press story. The Clinton quote appears in the AP story.

[6] Carl Stokes, Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 237.

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