By Stephen Cooper
The interminable failure of government to marshal all available resources, brainpower, imagination, and resolution of spirit, to finally solve Flint, Michigan’s contaminated water problem, stands, in relief, as a giant scarlet letter branded on the breast of America. One only needs to supplant the shame-evoking, blood-curdling, familiar image of the red “A” for “adulteress” with an even uglier, ignoble, black “R,” for racist. (And, perhaps, to emphasize this continuing environmental nightmare’s classist features, add an accompanying money-green polo-shirt-emblem-sized “c”.)
Buried in the press cycle of post-election hype, hysteria and dashed-and-undashed hopes around the country, is the fact that, last Thursday, a judge in Michigan – that’s right, in Michigan, not in some underdeveloped country like Rwanda, Somalia, or Ethiopia – ordered the State of Michigan and the City of Flint to immediately start home delivery of four cases of bottled water per resident of Flint, every single week, for the foreseeable future.
The only exception is for households that opt out, or where officials have verified that a water filter has been installed and properly maintained, which the judge’s order describes as a seemingly herculean task.
In an upbraiding that will long be remembered, U.S. District Judge David Lawson’s no-nonsense, tart order reminded Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and other state and city officials what should be obvious to any educated person: “A safe water supply has always been critical to civilization …. In modern society, when we turn on a faucet, we expect safe drinking water to flow out. As the evidence shows, that is no longer the case in Flint. The Flint water crisis has in effect turned back the clock to a time when people traveled to central water sources to fill their buckets and carry the water home.”
Back on January 28th, in a column appropriately titled, “Flint, Michigan: Did race and poverty factor into water crisis?,” Michael Martinez wrote for CNN that, “[t]he contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan, has so outraged community advocates that they now pose a powerful question: Was the city neglected because it is mostly black and about 40% poor?”
Suggesting the answer to this disturbing question is a resounding “yes,” Martinez’s piece quotes a tweet by NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks (“Environmental Racism + Indifference = Lead in the Water & Blood”), and also, the Black Lives Matter movement, which, in a statement, confirmed the historically unequal denial of clean water to black people, especially “in rural and poor areas”: “The crisis in Flint is not an isolated incident. State violence in the form of contaminated water or no access to water at all is pervasive in Black communities.”
Now, ten months later, with a solution to Flint’s water debacle not appreciably closer, can anyone doubt Martinez’s premise about the deplorable divisions existing in this country (along race and class lines) when it comes to accessing clean water?
For additional perspective on the problem, compare a column I wrote in February exploring the nefarious link between lead poisoning and the racist imposition of the death penalty, and Rob Kuznia’s piece, several months earlier, in The Washington Post, concerning the reaction of affluent Californians to water restrictions brought on by drought.
I soberly observed: “A poor, disenfranchised child of color, exposed to excessive lead in the United States during their childhood, could as easily wind up on death row as he (or she) could serve time behind bars.” Meanwhile, Kuznia quoted wealthy (white) Californians from the ultra-rich enclave of Rancho Santa Fe saying out of touch, and – when you consider the deplorable, life-threatening water situation in Flint – truly asinine things, such as, “people should not be forced to golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful.” Or, even worse, an interior designer’s observation, out for a trail ride on her show horse, “Bear”: “I think we’re being overly penalized, and we’re certainly being overly scrutinized by the world.”
In his victory speech on election night, President-elect Donald Trump, said: “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, [and] hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.” Trump has also been quoted, saying, “I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”
If these statements are true, there is no more worthy cause Trump can tackle upon taking office than ensuring equal access to clean drinking water for the poor, predominately black people of Flint, Michigan.
These days it’s vogue to call ambitious, ground-breaking endeavors for the betterment of mankind – such as efforts to defeat cancer – “moonshots.” In the shameful, racist, literally (and figuratively) foul water situation in Michigan, the residents of Flint aren’t trying to fly to the moon, and the “shot” they’re asking for, that they keep asking for – access to clean water – is one much of the nation, especially the white, privileged part, enjoys.
Will Trump help Flint, Michigan to solve its water woes? Only time will tell. What’s sure is, it sorely (and bigly) could use it.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on twitter @SteveCooperEsq