In wake of Flint water crisis, state and local governments confront systemic racial bias

Apr 30, 2019 by

Daily Kos

Flint resident Freddie Fisher shouts out "No justice, no peace!" as she joins more than 50 Flint residents who rally on the five-year anniversary of the Flint water crisis at the Capitol Building on Thursday, April 25, 2019, in Lansing, Mich. Fisher said she's been afraid of interaction with the water, so much to the point that she has to force herself to take a bath to keep clean, but not without its fears of what it could do to her body. She erupted with an impassioned speech asking for politicians to step up and continue to aid the city's residents until the issue is fully resolved. (Jake May/ Flint Journal via AP)
Flint resident Freddie Fisher shouts out “No justice, no peace!” as she joins more than 50 Flint residents rallying on the five-year anniversary of the Flint water crisis at the Capitol Building on Thursday, April 25, 2019, in Lansing, Michigan. Fisher is still afraid of coming in contact with the city’s water, to the point that she has to force herself to take a bath to keep clean, but not without fear of what it could do to her body. She erupted with an impassioned speech asking for politicians to step up and continue to aid the city’s residents until the issue is fully resolved.

Five years after the beginning of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, residents are still feeling the impact of being poisoned by their state government. Lines for donated water remain long, the city is still working on replacing its antiquated, lead-lined pipes, and justice is still a long way off in both the civil lawsuits and the criminal court cases that have resulted from the negligence of former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration.

But while Flint waits and works to be made whole again, there are positive signs that at least some state and local units of government may finally be tackling the systemic racism that made the Flint water crisis possible in the first place. Meanwhile, Flint’s chief public health advisor, Dr. Pamela Pugh, told Daily Kos that while she is cautiously optimistic, “horrible racism built this system, and it’s going to take us years—decades—to undo.”

And according to the executive director of Michigan Faith in Action, Eileen Hayes, people are “very hopeful” about the positive changes that seem to be coming from new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration, but “If you’re still living with a filter on your faucet, you know things haven’t been fixed.”

The work to understand and start to confront the systemic biases in Michigan’s state government that led to the crisis was first tackled by the state’s Department of Civil Rights (MDCR), whose Civil Rights Commission held extensive hearings with Flint residents and officials in 2016.

The goal of the hearings was “to better understand the role decades of structural and institutional discrimination and racism played in quieting your voices and enabling the poisoning of your public water supply,” according to the commission’s 2017 report on those hearings. The report outlined seven principal recommendations to not just confront and start dismantling institutional racism, but also promote actual equity within Michigan’s state and local governments.

Pugh said the commission’s report “was to be commended.”

“Really looking at the historical and systemic racism that led to the Flint water crisis, and calling that out in writing has been critical to the work that we need to do to right the wrongs that were done to the residents of Flint,” she added.

The MDCR didn’t stop there. The agency created a study guide that schools and other groups can use to examine the role institutional racism played in creating the Flint water crisis. Other efforts include hiring the state’s first racial equity officer, placing civil rights inspectors on-site in different Michigan communities, and creating the Council of Local Governments and Education on Equity and Inclusion, a networking and information-sharing organization comprised of representatives from local governments and school districts.

“We are doing everything we can to raise awareness in terms of understanding what caused (the Flint water crisis),” the MDCR’s racial equity officer, Alfredo Hernandez, told Daily Kos. According to Hernandez, the commission is also collaborating with a number of state agencies, local governments, and school districts to provide training on racial and other equity issues.

Dr. Agustin Arbulu, the MDCR’s executive director, added that the agency’s work has become increasingly welcomed by state and local entities alike. When the Council of Local Governments first convened in October 2018, Arbulu said, “I think we had close to 25 to 30 governmental and school groups come together. We’re holding a second one on May 1, and we’re expecting well over 50 representatives.”

“There have been governmental units who have definitely stepped up to the plate,” Arbulu added.

Having a new governor in office has also made a difference. In January, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that, among other things, requires each department within the executive branch to designate an equity and inclusion officer to ensure the departments are in compliance with the governor’s beefed-up anti-discrimination employment protections.

According to Arbulu, since Whitmer’s inauguration “we have had a number of departments reach out to us” for resources and training. “I do see a marked difference” between Whitmer’s administration and the administration of former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, Arbulu told Daily Kos.

At the local level, equity initiatives have made strange bedfellows of counties as diverse as the Democratic-led Washtenaw County and conservative Ottawa County (the latter recently elected its first Democratic county commissioner since the 1970s). Both were cited by the MDCR’S Hernandez as examples of local governments actively working to dismantle systemic bias and promote equity instead.

According to Ottawa County Commissioner Alan Vanderberg, his government was actually ahead of the curve on equity issues. The county started working on equity in 2012 in large part, Vanderberg told Daily Kos, because the county’s largest employers gave the county government an ultimatum.

Basically, Vanderberg said, the employers made it clear that, “if we (the county’s government) do not become more welcoming, they were going to need to move portions of their organizations, their new expansions, and their existing departments to areas that did not have this problem.”

With so many different governmental entities seeming ready to jump on the equity bandwagon, the MDCR’s Arbulu cautioned against “falling into the trap (of making equity work) the flavor of the month.”

“It’s fashionable to talk about equity,” Arbulu said, “but you’ve got to be able to organize, and then you have to be able to operationalize” real and lasting changes that go beyond hiring a few people from marginalized groups and saying the right things in diversity or equity trainings.

While state and local governments alike are working to dismantle the racial and other biases that created the Flint water crisis, Hayes from Michigan Faith in Action said that Flint residents can think of one “small thing” the state should do right now to prove that it’s serious about earning back their trust: resume the free water distribution program that was discontinued by the Snyder administration in April 2018.

On April 1, Gov. Whitmer pledged to resume state-funded distribution, but only if and when Nestle stops its own water distribution program.

“We never agreed to [relying on Nestle and nonprofits for bottled water],” Hayes said. “We were told we would have bottled water until everything was completely fixed.”

Dawn Wolfe is a freelance writer and journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.

This content was created by a Daily Kos Community member.

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