Racism and Classism in the Flint Water Crisis by Sarah Bank

In the late Winter of 2014, Lee Anne Walters’ children’s hair began to fall out in clumps.  This was only one of a plethora of the children’s new medical issues such as scaly rashes, abdominal pain, and a halt in growth: all symptoms of lead poisoning. Several more diagnoses followed for other families in Flint in September, and residents began to complain about the foul smell and brown color of their water. Water that they drank, bathed in, cooked with, and cleaned with. Water that was supposed to be protected under legislation like the Safe Drinking Water Act, which was designed to eliminate the possibility of dangerous public and tap water. Some time after the diagnoses, local, state, and federal states of emergencies fled into Flint, blame was continuously deflected, and no serious solutions were offered quickly enough. Criminal trials now continue into 2018, and residents are still told to use filters with their water. Many families, including the Walters, have moved out of Flint, and others do not have the resources to do so. How did this happen in a majority black city with forty percent of residents below the poverty line? Why was the government so incompetent? How does the lead poisoning intersect with racist and classist government policy and urban planning?

This corrupt and unjust story begins, naturally, with the government’s desire to save money. In April 2014 Flint stops buying water from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department and intends to switch to the Karegnondi Water Authority, but this switch would not become effective until 2015. In the interim, beginning April 25, the new water source would be the Flint River. The same Flint River that was previously used as a dump for General Motors and that resident Rhonda Kelso described as “toxic waste.” Instead of buying water, Flint will treat its  own water. The government was uncertain about the water and pipe quality from the river, but decided to “wait and see” instead of taking the preventative measures it was supposed to. It turns out that there was no corrosion control in the pipes, and the new water from the Flint River washed away all of the protective coating, allowing lead to seep into the water and poison Mrs. Walters’ children and many more others.

The government had waited, and what they saw was not good. It tried to cover up its incompetence, but because of the work of activists and journalists the truth began to unravel. Many of the records in the Flint utility building are old, yellowed index cards, or decaying paper, unsuitable for proper investigation of the lead issue. High lead samples found in Flint homes were thrown out. As the number of children with lead poisoning doubled and the spotlight was cast on the government, officials slowly started offering solutions: free filters, new water fixtures in schools and public places, bottled water for government employees, and treatment for six affected children. An estimated 99,000 Flint residents were affected by lead, many of them children who will live with learning disabilities and developmental delays. As of June 14, 2017, only fifteen people have been people criminally charged for their part in the water crisis. The pipes are still corroded in Flint, and the water is still unsafe. As of December 13, 2017, 6,200 pipes have been replaced. There are still 11,800 pipes to go.

The water crisis and lead poisoning in Flint is not a fluke. This is not even the first time this has happened in Flint, as the Flint River provided water to the city until the 1960’s when it was determined that the water was too polluted and could not be used. Throughout history in various American cities working class black people have been betrayed by government policy and urban regulatory rules meant to protect, and by corporations like the lead industry. As modern technology advances so does waste, and that waste needs somewhere to go. Historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner explain that “African Americans and poor whites found themselves at a severe disadvantage, consistently bearing the brunt of industrial pollution in virtually all of its forms: dirty air, foul water, and toxic solid wastes” and that “capitalism, particularly industrial capitalism, involved social differentiation along the lines of class, race, gender, and ethnicity.” When the only interest is to make money, or in the case of Flint, save money, it just makes economic sense to dump the problems on the oppressed. This is precisely what the lead industry did: an active poisoning of the innocent for money.

The lead industry knew early on that its products had detrimental and even deadly effects on children, and “by the 1950’s and 1960’s childhood lead poisoning emerged as a major national issue,” an issue that has persisted as “five percent of children-half a million-still have dangerous amounts of lead in their bodies” and “more than half of all poor black children have elevated blood lead levels.” The industry was too concerned with profit to solve the problem even as society divided itself into two groups: those who prioritized treating victims and those who prioritized fixing policy. Little to no treatment or policy revision occurred. This continued into the 1980’s when Dr. Mark Farfel, a public health official, explained that because of lead paint in Baltimore housing people were simply “waiting for children to be poisoned.” There was the option of helping people, but the lead industry and government continuously chose money, proving that the poisoning was systematic. Markowitz and Rosner argue that, “to a large extent we determine how we live and how we die… if we systematically pollute our water and air.” Lead poisoning can be prevented, or it can continue to haunt as a result of careless oversight.

But Flint water was not controlled by the big systematic evil of the lead industry. It was controlled by predominately white government appointed officials from the state of Michigan, not necessarily from Flint. However, their motives are the same as the lead industry’s. The goal is to save money, even if it means using water from a river residents already know is disgusting. It is not particularly enticing to investigate corrosion control and go looking for problems that will inevitably cost a lot of money. As historian Peter Moskowitz argues, cities have to function like for-profit corporations because they do not receive enough money from the federal government. Flint does not have the budget for nice amenities or even safe drinking water because its population is poor, and that is reflected in tax-revenue. White flight sent those with money to surrounding suburbs, leading to the predominantly poor population that dominates the city now. In a criminal trial for officials involved in the incident, Special Prosecutor Todd Flood said that defendants were faced with the question, “health or money?” and that they had the ability to “stop poisoning the people, and they failed in that duty.” Money creates an environment where intentional lack of attention to detail is encouraged. This is dangerous and life-threatening for residents who do not have any money of their own to throw at the problems or to use to protect their human rights. This violation has occurred throughout history, in Flint, and will continue into the future unless there is a shift in government policy and urban planning.


Works cited

Carmody, Tim. “How the Flint River got so toxic.” The Verge, February 26, 2016.



Egan, Paul. “These are the 15 people criminally charged in the Flint water crisis.” Detroit Free

Press, June 14, 2017.



Fleming, Leonard N. “Flood: Regulators didn’t ‘stop poisoning’ Flint people.”

The Detroit News, January 8, 2018. http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2018/01/08/flint-hearing-deq-regulators/109273444/


Fox, Maggie. “CDC Confirms Lead Levels Shot Up in Flint Kids After Water Switch.”

NBC News, June 24, 2016. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/flint-water-crisis/cdc-confirms-lead-levels-shot-flint-kids-after-water-switch-n598496


Hurley, Andrew. Environmental Inequalities: Class Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary,

Indiana, 1945-1980. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.


Kennedy, Merrit. “Lead-Laced Water in Flint: A Step-By-Step Look At The Makings Of A

Crisis.” National Public Radio’s Two-Way, April 20, 2016.



Lurie, Julia. “Meet the Mom Who Helped Expose Flint’s Toxic Water Nightmare.” Mother

Jones, January 21, 2016.



Markowitz, Gerald and David Rosner. Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of

America’s Children. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014.


“More than 6,200 water pipes replaced so far in Flint.” Associated Press, December 13, 2017.



Moskowitz, Peter. How to Kill a City. New York: Nation Books, 2017.


Safe Drinking Water Act, 42 U.S.C. §300f et seq. (1974).


Smith, Lindsey. “After ignoring and trying to discredit people in Flint, the state was forced to

face the problem.” Michigan Radio, December 16, 2015. http://michiganradio.org/post/after-ignoring-and-trying-discredit-people-flint-state-was-forced-face-problem#stream/0

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