It was almost too easy to choose this week’s column subject. This column focuses on an issue that has weighed  heavily on my mind since it first appeared on my radar. Furthermore, since returning to campus, multiple people have asked if I planned to cover this topic. Upon texting my mother for topic suggestions, she replied with one word. “Flint.” 

Flint. As many know, this Michigan city is in a state of crisis— a preventable, unnerving crisis. The seed was planted in 2011, when Flint was declared to be in a financial state of emergency, prompting the state to assume budgetary control. Michigan Governor Rick Synder then appointed an emergency financial manager who was tasked with cutting Flint’s budget. A proposal was made to switch Flint’s water source from the relatively costly Lake Huron to the cheaper, riskier Flint River.

Preliminary studies revealed that Flint River’s water could only be considered safe if it underwent treatment with an anti-corrosion agent. This agent would prevent the river water from eroding the pipes—a mishap that could result in discolored, possibly noxious water. After learning that this treatment would cost the state a mere one hundred dollars per day, the results of the study were ignored. In 2014, Flint’s water supply was switched.

In May of that year, Flint’s residents began to complain about the quality of their new water. It was brown. It was rancid. It made them sick. The complaints were ignored. In January of 2015, Detroit’s Water and Sewage Department offered to reconnect Flint to its original water supply. Despite the complaints from Flint residents, the emergency financial manager rejected the Department’s offer. 

In February, the Environmental Protection Agency detected high levels of lead in the water, caused by the absence of the anti-corrosion agent. In September, one pediatrician began to publicly discuss multiple findings of lead poisoning —the effects of which are often irreversible. Though the water supply was finally switched back to Lake Huron in October of that year—over five months after the residents’ complaints began —the damage was done. To this day, the water pipes are corroded and the supply remains toxic. 

As of now, all of Flint’s approximately 100,000 residents are considered at risk for heavy metal poisoning. Additionally, as of January 13 of this year, there have been 87 reported cases of Legonnaires’ disease, 10 of which resulted in death. Last week, over a year and a half since his citizens first reported this problem, the Governor of Michigan finally offered a weak promise: “I’m sorry, and I will fix it.” 

Pause. Now, let’s backtrack and discuss demographics. Flint is roughly fifty-six percent Black. About forty-two percent of its population live below the poverty line. Most of you probably think that you know where I’m going with this. You don’t. 

The lack of response and, thus, prolonged suffering of Flint’s residents, in conjuction with the city’s demographics, have led many to label this crisis an example of blatant racism. Many are questioning whether this would have ever occurred in a town whose residents are predominately white. Do I think that the residents of Greenwich, Connecticut would ever be made to drink brown water and ignored for a year and a half? Of course not. But it is not as simple as it may seem.

When I initially read about the crisis, I immediately thought “wow, racism” and ignorantly left it at that. Luckily, Professor Brian Purnell recently pushed me to delve a bit deeper. On Thursday, he asked our class to question the American notion that race is causative. In essence, this is the idea behind the assumption that a White man who killed a Black man did so out of hate for black people. 

In a society often divided by race, it is both easy and understandable to think this way. Personally, the continuous killing of unarmed Black citizens makes it nearly impossible for me to avoid subconsciously assuming that white-on-black violence begins and ends with race and race alone. However, this knee-jerk reaction can cause one to ignore the bigger —and often, more insidious—question.

 It is easy to say that the residents of Flint were ignored because many of them are Black. It takes more time and effort to evaluate the situation’s context and arrive at a more complex answer. Does the Flint water crisis have to do with race? Absolutely. But skin color alone is not the only answer. Race in America is and always has been irrevocably tied to class and power. Concerning Flint, that is the problem. 

A majority of the residents of Flint are Black. Many are impoverished. Most are disempowered. I’m certainly no expert but I would surmise that their voices went unheard because of a centuries-old system—a system that should be dissected and critiqued. This cannot happen when one fails to recognize the simplicity of their thinking. 

In order for our generation to exact lasting change, we must first understand issues to their fullest extent. It is imperative that we include context in our discussions. When discussing race-related issues, do not stop at race alone. Search for connections between race and other institutions. Venture to understand the reasons behind those connections. Dare to delve deeper.