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.  

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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?  

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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

The greater the concentration of underserved communities, the greater lack of access to clean water resources—and, yes, in the United States.

“There is a widespread assumption that safe, affordable water for drinking and household use is available to all residents in the United States,” notes Pacific Institute researcher Amy Vanderwerker in A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy. “The reality is that some low-income communities and communities of color lack access to water for the most basic human needs.”

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Just take a quick look at the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of cities under federal consent decree for Clean Water Act violations and you’ll find a majority with populations that are a quarter or more black.

Nor is it confined to one-off crises easily contained once the water pipes are replaced, caulked and sealed. Devastating long-term socioeconomic and clinical consequences can linger for generations. ThinkProgress’ Carimah Jones demonstrates how developmental disabilities from lead poisoning in Flint will eventually overwhelm the city and state’s criminal-justice system.

Quiet as it’s been kept, even low-income neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., were gripped in a horrific lead-poisoning crisis just a decade ago—but, because it’s the nation’s capital, we were either too cute or too diffident to make noise about it. A 2009 study on it obtained by the Washington Post “raise[d] concern about the 42,000 D.C. children [ages 4 to 9 at the time of the report] who were in the womb or younger than 2 during the water crisis. Those children might be at risk of future health and behavioral problems linked to lead.” As Kevin Drum points out in this scary 2013 Mother Jones piece, lead levels have been linked to spikes in delinquent behavior.

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Of course, in heavily gentrifying D.C., the lead crisis has become a distant memory. Professional whites are steadily moving in, folks of color are being pushed out and the city is bending over backward to accommodate new homes, refurbish old ones and make the big fix of aging water pipes (because, God forbid, you can’t have that happening to white kids).

Flint, then, is just the tip of the lead-tainted iceberg. There’s a larger discussion on infrastructure failures exacerbated by institutional racism. Rampant disregard for the plight of underserved or low-income communities isn’t an isolated thing.  

And it gets worse when the city, heavily black and politically blue, is in a sea of political red. In Flint, it’s the majority-black city with its black Democratic mayor and black Democratic state representative against the state’s detached white Republican governor and white Republican-dominated state Legislature unwilling. Michigan state Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint), who warned Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, a year before the crisis popped, tells The Root that Snyder “hasn’t even reached out to me about the place where I live … where my family lives, where my mother lives.”

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Political battles over infrastructure investments might seem remote and dry. But they are, for sure, some of the biggest and most impactful conflicts along racial, geographical and class lines. Many state legislatures led by consolidated and politically powerful pockets of exurban and suburban conservative lawmakers put up stiff resistance (“urbanophobia,” as Governing magazine’s Alan Ehrenhalt pins it) against city-prioritized mass transit and public works projects. Jackson’s Yarber points to his own case as he, and other black mayors in poverty-stricken Mississippi, spar with a white Republican state government.

“As big as this issue is for African Americans, there is not one question about infrastructure in recent Democratic debates,” Peter Groff, a former president of the Colorado Senate while representing the state’s largest pocket of black residents in Denver, complains to The Root. “America’s grade on infrastructure is constantly below average, and that’s just on maintenance. We are failing on innovative approaches to keeping our people safe at home, on the roads, on rail and in the air.”

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.