It wasn’t that long ago that I used to like to cite this statistic for the proposition that things had gotten better when it came to the question of race, in the United States: if you lived in the toney Boston suburb of Newton Massachusetts, your President (Barack Obama), Governor (Deval Patrick) and Mayor (Setti Warren) were all black men. And all three guys had been reelected. That had to be sign of progress of some kind. Didn’t it?
Ah, how far we’ve come, or more accurately, haven’t come since then. Since then we’ve had Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose and Freddie Gray, and more evidence than anyone needs that an unarmed young black man isn’t safe in encounters with police, or that a black woman isn’t safe driving a nice car through Texas or in New York City.
And now, to add to that evidence, we have the incomprehensible water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan.
Now, I’ve never been to Flint or anywhere near Flint. What I know about Flint is mostly that Michael Moore comes from there. Moore, of course, directed the film Roger & Me, which is about Moore pursuing Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors, to confront him about the harm he did to Flint, Michigan with his closure of the Flint plant and the loss of approximately 30,000 jobs. Flint today is a mostly poor, majority African-American city small city of about 100,000 citizens.
But here are the details on their water crisis:
- Flint has had two financial crises (2002-2004 and 2011-2016), both of which resulted in the state of Michigan putting the city in “receivership,” with an appointed financial managers, in both cases, to deal with the possible default of the city.
- In March 2013, the Flint city council voted to switch their water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the new Lake Huron-sourced Karegnondi Water Authority, which switch was approved by the Flint emergency manager. The actual switch was postponed.
- In late April 2014, in an effort to save about $5 million, the city switched from purchasing treated Lake Huron water from Detroit, to treating water from the Flint River. The plan was to attach to the Karegnondi system, which was still under construction, and would be completed around 2017.
- Almost immediately, residents began complaining about the taste, smell and appearance of the water, before a Flint physician found highly elevated blood lead levels in the children of Flint. Meanwhile, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality continued to insist the water was safe to drink.
- In September 2015, a team investigating the water quality published a report finding that Flint water was very corrosive and causing serious lead contamination in people’s homes. The team found that at least a quarter of Flint households had levels of lead above the federal level of 15 parts per billion and that in some homes, lead levels were at 13,200 ppb.
- On September 24, 2015, Hurley Medical Center in Flint released a study confirming that proportion of infants and children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled since the city switched from the Detroit water system. The study was based on existing hospital records.
- A subsequent task force also found that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, in its oversight of the water issue, had failed to follow the federal Lead and Copper Rule that requires “optimized corrosion control treatment.” Instead, DEQ staff instructed City of Flint water treatment staff that corrosion control treatment would not be necessary for the first year.
To say that this story is incredible would be to minimize what went on here. Anybody who knows anything about public health knows that lead poisoning is one of the #1 concerns for the public health of children. In Massachusetts, for example, there is a very strict lead paint law that all homeowners have to abide by, and which allows the owners of rental property on which a child is lead poisoned to be held personally liable for the consequences.
This kind of thing would never happen in the city of Newton, referenced above, where Setti Warren is still the mayor. Because despite their black mayor, the city of Newton is filled with relatively well-off white people. Many of whom are lawyers, doctors, professors and chief executives.
So why was it allowed to happen in the city of Flint? That, my friends, is a good question, and one which underlines the extent of the indifference that policy makers have to the lives of black people. And poor people. Yes, black lives matter. And the lives of poor people as well.
 Okay, Barack Obama is only half-black, but let’s not quibble.
 Deval Patrick has since retired and been replaced by Charlie Baker.
 Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I do still think that it’s evidence of some kind of progress.
 A default happens when a city can no longer pay its debt with its existing income.