Racial Discrimination in the Flint Water Crisis

“Flint is a place I have been devoted to helping…I’ve made a focused effort since I started in office to say, ‘We need to work hard to help people that have the greatest need,’ ” Michigan’s Governor Snyder told the public. Such a response to the Flint water crisis only leaves more questions unanswered. This paper will address just a few of these questions, first by presenting a review of the timeline and decisions of the crisis to understand its causes. Followed by narrative analyses of the mostly white policy makers involved and the majority minority citizens affected to reveal that Flint’s crisis is not only one concerning water, but that it is also a case of racial and environmental injustice.

A quick timeline: The story certainly did not “begin” in April, 2014 – as will be explained later – but this was the tipping point in Flint’s water crisis. Under pressure to cut budgets and costs under the appointed emergency financial manager, this was when Flint switched “its water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River.” And despite concerns from citizens who noted the poor quality of water, over the months the government continually assured that “Flint water is safe to drink.” (Rutter, 2016) By October 2014, General Motors stopped using Flint’s municipal water because it was deemed unsuitable and corroded car parts, but there was still no response from the government. Then in January 2015, Detroit offered to wave a $4 million connection fee and reconnect Flint to safe water, the emergency manager declined to keep costs low. (Rutter, 2016) Under pressure, Flint finally switched back to Detroit’s water system in October 2015, but the damage to pipes had  already been done. (Rutter, 2016)

How did the water become unsafe? The answer begins with the source: a team at Virginia Tech found that the Flint River was 19 times more corrosive than nearby Lake Huron. (Craven 2016) Water became exponentially more corrosive when, in the summer of 2014, officials began pumping additional chlorine into the city’s water to address the presence of fecal coliform bacteria. (Lin, 2016) In spite of protocol, officials did not add any corrosion control treatment. And so the water from Flint River became increasingly more corrosive, the result is what has been seen in lead leaching from pipes and into individuals’ water supply. (Lin, 2016) The anti-corrosive agent would have costed $100 a day and would have solved 90% of the problems with Flint’s water. (Craven, 2016) Governor Snyder has tacked it all to an institutional failure of the institutions, “If you look at it, it was people being much too technical…The heads were not being given the right information by the quote-unquote experts.”(Pérez-Peña, 2016)

Why was nothing done? With explanations like elite theory and the framework of narrative analysis it can be seen how those ignoring the realities of Flint had never experienced its reality of poverty and scarce resources. To worsen the effect of elite theory, Flint was deprived of its right to democracy. A (white) emergency financial manager has been assigned to Flint since 2011, so that the outside government appointee was left in control of the city. (Seamster, 2016) This administrative distance from suffering citizens led policy makers to push aggressive budget cuts and wealthy tax reductions in both the state and Flint, further gutting the area of revenue and prohibiting cheap crisis prevention measures. It can be seen that mental models of politicians left the oppressed of Flint at the bottom of the funding priorities.

How have Flint’s minorities become disadvantaged? The reality of Flint is the product of a long history of racial discrimination that has segregated the city and encouraged its concentration of poverty. To understand the narrative of Flint citizens, one must understand the “decades-long process of racialized disinvestment that had made this crisis possible” says Flint historian, Pamela Butler. (Covert, 2016) In what once was the center of the American auto industry, low-income citizens bound to Flint have seen investment and capital leave in waves. First to leave was GM’s auto plants with jobs, then it was the white flight. The racialized system of federal housing policies incentivized the white and affluent to move into suburbs, while racial redlining and lending trapped residents of color in Flint. And so today the city’s population is 57% African-American and 41% below the poverty line. (Covert, 2016) A reflection of the entrenched inequality can be seen in how the indifference and sluggishness of the government in response to complaints captivated a national audience on news media, but offered no surprise to Flint citizens.

A stakeholder SWOT analysis using the histories and narratives mentioned in this paper reveals that the strengths and opportunities for Flint’s minority population are barren, while the weakness and threats are overbearing in combination with racial discrimination. The result of this imbalance has lead to the crisis of environmental justice in Flint, another case in a long list of the unfortunate intersections between racial discrimination and environmental degradation.



Chase Conrad


Poli 228


Response Paper #1, Current Event


Racial Discrimination and the Flint Michigan Water Crisis





Works Cited


Craven, Julie. (2016 February 3). The Racist Roots of Flint’s Water Crisis. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/racist-roots-of-flints-water-crisis_us_56b12953e4b04f9b57d7b118


Covert, Bryce. (2016 February 3). How Racism and Anti-Tax Fervor Laid the Groundwork For Flint’s Water Crisis. Think Progress. Retrieved From http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2016/02/03/3745246/flint-water-crisis-history/


Lin, Jeremy C.F. (2016 January 15). The Reach of Lead in Flint’s Water Supply. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/15/us/flint-lead-water-michigan.html?_r=0


Pérez-Peña, Richard. (2016 January 22). Michigan Governor Says Race Had No Role in Flint Water Response. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/23/us/flint-water-crisis-michigan-governor-rick-snyder.html


Rutter, Jean; Lin, Jeremy C.F. & Park, Haeyoun. Events That Led to Flint’s Water Crisis. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/21/us/flint-lead-water-timeline.html


Seamster, Louise & Welburn, Jessica. (2016 January 9). How a Racist System Has Poisoned the Water in Flint, Mich. The Root. Retrieved from http://www.theroot.com/articles/politics/2016/01/how_a_racist_system_has_poisoned_the_water_in_flint_mich.html



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