Infrastructure Failures, Like Flint, Are a Crisis for Black America

Flint, Mich.’s water crisis is a prime example of institutional neglect compounding a crumbling infrastructure.

The city of Flint, Mich.’s water plant is illuminated by moonlight Jan. 23, 2016. A federal state of emergency has been declared in Flint because of dangerous levels of contamination in the water supply.
The city of Flint, Mich.’s water plant is illuminated by moonlight Jan. 23, 2016. A federal state of emergency has been declared in Flint because of dangerous levels of contamination in the water supply. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

It’s easy to view the bubbling toxic-water crisis in Flint, Mich., as the case of yet another majority-black city victimized by institutional neglect. Michigan itself is a cautionary tale of once-thriving Northern manufacturing towns, once the heart of black Northern migration, now disintegrating from economic malaise.  

But, in reality, Flint serves as a primary example of what could become black America’s most pressing problem in the 21st century: a failing infrastructure.

We all take hated potholes and cracked freeway bridges for granted. Yet as dreary-fact-of-life as infrastructure appears, it’s unavoidably one of the most crucial quality-of-life issues for African Americans—if not the most crucial. Infrastructure is the nuts-and-bolts foundation of a city. Without it, societies can’t survive. If a city can’t keep itself together, then where will you live?  

“Typically out of sight and out of mind, many pipes are more than a century old and are expected to need $1 trillion in repairs nationally over the next 25 years alone,” says the Brookings Institution’s Joseph Kane, raising red flags about the infrastructure conundrum.  

But race may define why, as Kane notes, governments keep the issue low-key even as water-pipe degradation and contamination crises in urban cores grow in frequency, exacerbated by rampant disregard for the plight of underserved or low-income communities, as occurred in Flint.

Black voters who are living it sense that something is wrong, as reflected in a July 2014 YouGov poll (pdf) that gauged national attitudes on the issue. When asked if the federal government should spend more on infrastructure projects, a far greater share of black respondents (56 percent) said yes, compared with whites (45 percent) and Latinos (40 percent). A 2015 AAA survey (pdf) found an even larger gap between black and white sentiments on infrastructure investment.

And black mayors have been sounding off on the issue, too, like Jackson, Miss.’s Tony Yarber during a Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors summit last spring. When The Root caught up with him, Yarber explained a bleak situation of mass “infrastructure disinvestment.”

“Particularly, when we look at cities that have experienced white flight [like Flint],” Yarber tells The Root, “disinvestment has taken the place of infrastructure stability. But when you look at predominantly white areas, or suburbs, that’s where the investment flows to for better streets, better roads, better water-treatment systems.”

Yarber stresses that infrastructure is the most basic function of government. As black populations are persistently concentrated in metropolitan cores (with trending “black flight” to suburbs creating rings of working- and barely middle-class pockets), infrastructure is also the top, yet most ignored, black agenda item on tap.

President Barack Obama himself, with mixed success, raised it as a central element of postrecession national recovery. Remember the nearly forgotten American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the $832 billion “stimulus package”? Pitching it as an ambitious, shy-of-$1-trillion anti-depression fund, it was the Obama administration’s major public works play, a simultaneous push at job creation spurred by desperately needed infrastructure improvements.

Despite good intentions, and the hassle of Republican obstruction, the issue never took off for black America beyond the limited promises of job creation. Jobs, of course, are a big part of it: Infrastructure jobs account for over 11 percent of the workforce and, by 2022, will grow by 10 percent. That could put a huge dent in high black unemployment if governments funnel money where it’s needed.

But no one, including the president, framed it as the life-and-death matter that it is.