Tuesday, July 12, 2016

St. Louis, Meet Flint. Part 3: What Does Race Have to Do With It?

On MSNBC on Martin Luther King Day, Governor Rick Snyder was asked whether environmental racism had anything to do with the Flint water crisis. His response was “Absolutely not. Flint is a place I’ve been devoted to helping.”

In fact, environmental racism has everything to do with it, the Governor’s clean conscience notwithstanding, and every Michigander needs to understand how it does so we can understand the problems of our struggling cities as well as our poor rural areas.

A very popular narrative about the problems of Flint, Detroit and other Michigan cities goes something like this: These communities were economically ravaged by their voters who elected leaders who they knew would finance unsustainable contracts, payrolls and benefits, and now that the party is over and the cities are bankrupt, regular, hardworking Michiganders are being stuck with the tab.  This is often thinly concealed code for “Black people create problems that White people have to clean up”.

A similar narrative is increasingly being used to describe the poor, rural (mostly White) areas of Michigan where despair is leading to sharp increases in suicide, drug abuse, chronic disease and rising overall mortality rates—and where hope of economic recovery is vanishing. I described these chilling trends in the first part of this series. Stereotypes that poor, rural Michiganders are self-destructive slackers who deserve their fate are growing stronger.

Before I come back to what's happening in our rural areas, I’m going to pose an alternative history of Flint, one that blames environmental racism for the crisis. I will do so in a very personal way. I’m going to tell a story about my family. I’m going to talk about my two grandfathers.  These two men loved me a great deal, and gave many gifts to our family.  Strangely, one of the most influential things that came to me from them happened because my parents made an effort to learn about our family’s attitudes and behaviors toward Black people. Because of my parents’ efforts and what I learned about my grandfathers, I have a strong, personal sense how White Americans limited the economic opportunities of Black Americans, laying the foundations for the disaster in Flint.

My father’s father, Richard, who had an eighth grade education, rose to become a vice-president of his Mississippi town’s bank. In the 1950s, like virtually all White people in his town, he actively participated a social system that systematically crushed the aspirations of Black people. He became a prominent member of the White Citizen’s Council, the organization that worked to maintain school segregation and prevent Blacks from voting. In 1955, the White Citizens' Council published in the local paper the names of 53 Black signers of a petition for school integration. Soon afterward, the petitioners lost their jobs and had their credit cut off. Richard was deeply involved in a notorious incident in which the first Black social worker hired in the area was fired as a warning to other Black professionals.  He wasn’t the worst person to have walked the earth, but the fact that he was my grandfather makes me understand that White racism is part of my family’s legacy in this country.

In the middle of the 20th century, in the Great Migration, Black people fled the South to get away from people like my father’s father. They moved to places like Flint, and also Oakland, California. Unfortunately, there they ran into people like my mother’s father, Herbert.

Herbert was an architect and conservationist who lived in Oakland. But, like almost all White people of his generation, he was also a segregationist. In the mid-fifties, almost all White American home owners agreed to discriminate against Blacks and Jews by not selling their homes to them, doing their part in the cluster of practices known as “red-lining”. Real estate associations, city planners and federal government policies on financing home ownership excluded minorities as part of their official policies. When he purchased his home in Oakland, Herbert signed a memorandum stating that he would not sell to a Black person or Jew. The foothills remained almost exclusively White until near the end of the 20th century while the flatland seethed in poverty.

So Blacks fled the South to get away from racists and came to places like Flint or Oakland where they ran into segregation. In their new homes they often did not get the best jobs, were the first fired when globalization devoured industrial jobs starting in the 1980s, and were never able to buy good homes. Most never acquired wealth. When the economy of Flint imploded, the well-to-do fled, but the poor, many of whom were Black, were left without the means to sustain themselves or their community. When the tax base collapsed so did the capacity of the government.

But many aspects of this story are actually strikingly similar to the recent history of rural Michigan. This story has been told for Montcalm County, one of the places in which I work today, in an award-winning documentary. In Montcalm, divisions in the community fell along social class rather than racial lines. But these divisions meant that some residents did not acquire wealth in the form of valuable property, even though Montcalm had both prosperous agriculture and industrial sectors. Then globalization shuttered most of the factories in the area right around the turn of the 21st century. Many of the residents tumbled from what felt like the middle class into poverty. What had once been a landscape of family farms and factory jobs became a landscape of factory farms and rural slums. I believe this was the beginning of the trends that led to the spiraling health problems we saw in the first part of this series. And, similar to Flint, the erosion of the tax base in Montcalm has led to drastic reductions in government services threatening the ability of residents to protect themselves and their health.

I am writing about this because I have noticed during conversations about race in Mid-Michigan, that feelings about racial justice are often used as reasons to deny social justice to rural Michiganders. Feelings about racial justice can block action on problems facing rural communities.  For example, you may hear people say that we can’t create a potentially beneficial social program that could help rural Michiganders (this was used as an objection to the expansion of Medicaid), because of the risk that undeserving [Black?] people could possibly benefit from it. Sometimes people seem to worry more about their fears of others milking the system then about putting policies in place that would truly promote health and well-being. But of course an objective reading of history shows that neither urban, mostly Black Michiganders, nor rural, mostly White Michiganders created their circumstances. They were both victims of forces beyond their control and they can’t move forward without progressive policies designed to hem in the power of the wealthy and create new opportunities for the majority. Pitting people against each other just blocks changes that would improve lives and holds everyone back.

I started this three part series with a disturbing tour of statistics showing increasing mortality rates in rural areas.  I have tried to show that these trends make sense when you realize rural Michigan is subject to the same kinds of social forces that have affected other rural areas like Appalachia, but also urban parts of Michigan, like Flint. We used the story of pollution in St. Louis, Michigan and the economic collapse of Montcalm County to illustrate this point. My hope is that Michiganders will one day see that we all share an interest creating the conditions that promote health and well-being for everyone, and will seize every opportunity to do so.

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