A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint

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If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?

The 274 pages of emails released by Gov. Rick Snyder this week on Flint’s water crisis included no discussion of race. Instead, they focused on costs relating to the city’s water supply, questions about scientific data showing lead contamination and uncertainty about the responsibilities of state and local health officials.

But it is indisputable that in Flint, the majority of residents are black and many are poor. So whether or not race and class were factors in the state’s agonizingly slow and often antagonistic response, the result was the same: Thousands of Flint’s residents, black and white, have been exposed to lead in their drinking water. And the long-term health effects of that poisoning may not be fully understood for years.

For civil rights advocates, the health crisis in Flint smacks of what has become known as environmental racism. Coined in the 1980s, the term refers to the disproportionate exposure of blacks to polluted air, water and soil. It is considered the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments.


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