A resident of Flint, Mich., runs water from her faucet.
Al-Jazeera America screenshot

Tainted water is poisoning thousands of children in the predominantly African-American city of Flint, Mich. The high levels of lead in Flint’s water may create a plethora of serious, long-term health problems including brain damage, behavioral troubles, anemia and kidney problems.

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On Wednesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint and Genesee County in response to high levels of lead in Flint’s water supply. The U.S. attorney’s office has launched an investigation to understand who is responsible, and filmmaker Michael Moore has called for Snyder’s arrest. This investigation, however, must go beyond blaming one individual, because the current water crisis is a direct result of racialized state politics.

Flint’s citizens, 52 percent African American, have been deprived of the right to govern their city since 2011. Michigan's Emergency Manager Law allows the governor to appoint an unelected official to control a city determined to be in fiscal crisis. Emergency financial managers have been primarily assigned to majority-African-American cities across Michigan. In the past decade, over half of African Americans in Michigan—compared with only 2 percent of whites—have lived under emergency management. EFMs are supposed to take over cities based on a neutral evaluation of financial circumstances—but majority-white municipalities with similar money problems have not been taken over. Flint’s poisoning is one effect of the systematic stripping of black civil rights in Michigan.

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Flint’s water crisis began in 2014 when, to save money, Flint’s successively appointed EFMs, Ed Kurtz and Darnell Earley, switched the city’s water source to the Flint River rather than renewing the city’s water contract with Detroit—an established, safe water supplier. Residents immediately began complaining that brown water flowed from their faucets, yet health concerns were disregarded by officials, including Earley’s EFM successor, Gerald Ambrose.

As early as March 2015, officials knew that the water contained E. coli and carcinogens. By fall, it was revealed that residents’ drinking water contained high levels of lead and copper, contributing to significant reported health problems. Despite public assurances in July from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality that concerned residents should “relax,” an external research team from Virginia Tech found lead levels were a staggering 16 times the allowed limit, and a local pediatrician found that lead poisoning had doubled among Flint children in a single year. (There are twice as many black children as white children in Flint.)  

It took national media attention to make the state apologize and provide tap filters for residents. The city returned to getting water from Detroit in October 2015, but experts argue that the city’s infrastructure was damaged by the Flint River’s corrosive water. As a result, levels are still high, since corroded pipes may not be capable of preventing toxins from leaking into the water supply.

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What gave this unelected person the power to poison a city? Emergency financial management, which grants virtually unlimited power to an unelected official, lies at the heart of this story.

The EFM law, as designed and implemented, rests on the premise that democracy in predominantly African-American cities is unnecessary and that the state knows best. But the state shares blame for Flint’s fiscal problems: It cut almost $55 million in expected revenue to Flint from 2003-2013 in a move that disproportionately defunded already impoverished (and majority-African American) cities.

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Six EFMs have governed Flint in the past 13 years. Because budget deficits trump all other concerns, EFMs’ financial decisions have followed the austerity playbook, including cutting pay or firing unionized city employees and selling city properties. Cities under EFM have no one to hold accountable for the impact of these decisions—including decisions that result in poisoned water.

Water provides a telling window into the harmful effects of EFMs on African-American citizens. Various EFMs across Michigan, including Flint, have used water as a revenue stream by hiking fees, attempting to privatize systems or borrowing from the water budget. EFMs in Detroit and Highland Park have implemented draconian punishments for households unable to pay high water prices (including cementing over valves) while ignoring delinquent companies’ bills. And in Flint’s case, the deposed city government couldn’t independently check water quality after concerns were raised.

Flint’s poisoned water reveals the toxicity of the EFM law. Though several families filed a lawsuit against Earley and others, they are unlikely to succeed, since government agencies can’t be held liable for how they do their job.

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Michigan’s EFM law deprives local residents of basic political rights. Because African Americans are more likely to live in cities with EFMs, they are more likely to be impacted by their decisions. We are left to wonder: Would this happen in a majority-white city? This law and its effects reveal unpleasant truths about race and democracy in 2016.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Louise Seamster is a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at Duke University, and Jessica Welburn is an assistant professor in the departments of sociology and African-American studies at the University of Iowa. Follow Welburn on Twitter.