Snyder commission: Racism played role in Flint crisis

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Flint — Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s Civil Rights Commission on Friday released a scathing report arguing that “systemic racism” played a part in Flint’s water contamination crisis.

The 135-page report delves into the history of race and racism in the Flint area and argues that historical practices like redlining — or only renting and selling property to black residents in certain areas of the city — white flight to the suburbs, intergenerational poverty and “implicit bias” all helped lay the groundwork for an economic situation in the city in which an emergency manager was needed in the first place.

Emergency managers were responsible for the decision to switch to the Flint River for the city’s water supply as a cost-cutting move in April 2014. That decision allowed the highly corrosive Flint River water to scrape lead from the city’s aging lead pipes into the drinking water.

At the same time, state officials failed to require corrosion control chemicals be added to the water — something required by federal law and done in cities across the nation to prevent similar situations.

“Systemic racism” then played a large part in the sluggish response to the crisis and officials’ attempts to delegitimize Flint residents’ concerns that problems with the water supply existed long before Snyder’s administration acknowledged an issue, the report argues.

“The commission believes that we have answered our initial question, ‘Was race a factor in the Flint Water Crisis?’ Our answer is an unreserved and undeniable — ‘yes’,” the report said.

“The people of Flint have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes, for generations,” the report said.

“When the last of the civil lawsuits and attorney general criminal investigations are completed, and relief dollars from state and federal sources are exhausted, what will remain is a city and its people who will continue to fight against built-in barriers but whose voices — as a matter of public right — must never be stifled or quelled again,” the report states.

The report’s authors, Snyder appointees, say the people of Flint did not “enjoy” the equal protection of environmental or public health laws, they have not had a meaningful voice in the decisions leading up to the Flint Water crisis.

“Many argue they had no voice,” the report says.

The commission did not allege a specific violation of the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act in the report, however. It instead claims that current state civil rights laws “appear inadequate to address the deeply embedded institutional, systemic and historical racism that we find at the root of this crisis.”

The report offers a litany of potential policy changes, including to the state’s emergency manager law, and implies the emergency manager law is focused on cutting costs at the expense of people’s well-being.

Commission members recommended the governor’s office invite “experts on implicit bias” to train the cabinet and all state departments, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Quality. They also called for more ways for the public to request state action and appeal certain decisions and an overhaul to the state’s emergency manager law.

“Our laws are behind,” said Augustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Civil Rights Department. “We no longer need to really be concerned about animus, or personal prejudice, dislikes.”

Arbulu said that current laws that lead to “disparate outcomes” between races underscore the need to change policies to address racial inequality.

The report said the emergency manager law should be amended to offer local representation alongside that manager with the “ability to appeal an adverse decision,” and that the locally elected government “continue to play some role” in the emergency manager’s decisions, among other recommended changes to the law.

“The governor takes the reporting of each of these panels very seriously, and appreciates the public input that was shared,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said in a statement. “We have been and continue working to build strong relationships between state government and every community we serve, and adding accountability measures to ensure a crisis of this magnitude never happens again in Michigan.”

Flint residents were concerned long before Snyder’s administration got involved or acknowledged a problem that their water supply might have been contaminated. Many complained of a foul odor and discoloration in the water and suspected that it was unsafe to drink.

Still, many consumed water contaminated with lead, which can cause developmental problems and learning disabilities in young children and other neurological problems in adults exposed to high lead levels.

Snyder has blamed “career bureaucrats” for the crisis, which he called a “failure of government at all levels.”

Residents are still encouraged to drink filtered water, though officials have declared the detectable lead levels in the drinking water supply to be within the acceptable federal threshold.

While Snyder admitted failure in the government to protect Flint residents’ health, and Attorney General Bill Schuette has pursued criminal charges for state and local officials implicated in the crisis, Friday’s report marks the first time any arm of Snyder’s administration has publicly argued that “structural racism” played a part in the crisis — something that Democrats and others have suggested in the past.

Authors of the report delve into the history of segregation and racist social mores in Flint, cite 20th century political philosopher John Rawls and UC Berkeley School of Law African studies professor John Powell.

They based a substantial part of the report on a 2009 University of Michigan history dissertation on Flint titled, “Race, Class, and the Deconstruction of the American Dream in Flint, Michigan,” by Andrew Highsmith. That dissertation was later expanded into a book called “Demolition Means Progress,” which argues that decades of urban “renewal campaigns” left Flint reeling with profound racial segregation and economic disparity.

As Flint’s population grew over the 20th century, many former residents fled the city for suburbs while factories shuttered and jobs went elsewhere, the report says.

But government policies and social expectations kept people of color segregated to the same three or four neighborhoods for much of the 20th century in Flint. Even after explicitly racist policies enforcing segregation were scrapped, “the legacy of discrimination remained,” the report said.

“We believe the underlying issue is historical and systemic, and dates back nearly a century, and has at its foundation race and segregation of the Flint community,” the report said. “These historical policies, practices, laws and norms fostered and perpetuated separation of race, wealth and opportunity.

“This brings us to the question: Would the Flint water crisis have been allowed to happen in Birmingham, Ann Arbor or East Grand Rapids? We believe the answer is no, and that the vestiges of segregation and discrimination found in Flint made it a unique target.”

The report does not imply overt intent of racial discrimination. It focused on how the broader implications of longstanding social realities — such as race, economic inequality, social and political institutions and segregation — played in Flint to create a historical situation in which such “environmental racism” was possible in the first place.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said “racial bias” in Flint isn’t a surprise to those who live there, “but the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s affirmation that the emergency manager law disproportionately hurts communities of color is an important reminder of just how bad the policy is.”

“Now is the time to address this flawed law,” he said. “The people of Flint deserve the same level of safety, opportunity and justice that any other city in Michigan enjoys.”

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Twitter: @MikeGerstein