By Jan Worth-Nelson
While asserting that there were no “overt racist actions” that created the Flint water crisis, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission stated Friday that if the question is “Was race a factor in the Flint Water Crisis,” the answer would be “an unreserved and undeniable – yes.”
Would it have happened in Birmingham, Ann Arbor, or Grand Rapids — relatively wealthy cities with primarily majority populations? No, they also stated.
Yet the sources of that racism were not attached so much to individual actions or persons by name in the crisis as to a much broader, complicating set of triggering conditions — “dating back nearly a century,” they said. The people of Flint, they wrote, “have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes, for generations.”
Among those conditions were “redlining” practices in real estate and housing over decades that led to spirals of white flight and barriers to black home ownership, employment discrimination against blacks, the loss of revenue sharing, depletions of local resources and a shrinking tax base due to industry departures, the decline of neighborhood schools, and a consequent neglect over time of basic infrastructure.
“Reviewing the historical governmental actions impacting the leaving and health conditions of Flint residents, i.e., the legacy of Flint, was sobering and left a deep impression,” Commission members wrote. “We must come to terms with the ongoing effects of systemic racism: that repeatedly led to disparate racial outcomes as exemplified by the Flint Water Crisis. This can no longer be ignored.”
They pointed out the effects of those corrosions have hurt the entire city, not just the minority communities.
The eight-member commission, co-chaired by Rasha Demashkieh, a Ft. Gratiot pharmacist, and Laura Kopack of Livonia, a director of the Mechanical Contractors Association, unanimously approved a 129-page report on the crisis, titled “The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint” in a public meeting and presentation at UM – Flint’s Northbank Center.
The document represented the findings of more than a year of investigations, more than 100 interviews and three hearings, held in Flint Jan. 25, July 14 and Sept. 8, 2016. It offered seven recommendations with many sub-suggestions “intended to ensure,” they wrote,” that ‘another Flint’ does not happen again.”
Among them were calls to train top state officials in implicit bias and its effects; to create a “Truth and Reconciliation” Commission similar to those established in South Africa in the wake of apartheid; to create an “environmental justice plan” and — to cheers from the Flint audience — replace or restructure Michigan’s emergency manager law.
Flint was put under state control through the emergency management system starting in 2011, and continuing until 2015. Two of the four emergency managers, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose, were among 13 indicted for wrongdoing as the crisis unfolded, and many Flint residents passionately believe the EM system, which severely reduced local control, is one of the reasons behind the actions that led to the crisis.
Commissioners also called for creation of a “regional government” that would “require suburbs and the urban cores from which they grew to work collaboratively to solve problems.”
The recommendations were presented by Michigan Department of Civil Rights Department Executive Director Agustin Arbulu and MDCR Legal and Policy Director Dan Levy. Their first item faulted the Commission itself:
1. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission and Department of Civil Rights must do a better job of responding and listening to the constituencies we represent, and of making their priorities our priorities.
Commissioners stated that even as the complaints about tainted water and its physiological effects flooded out from Flint residents, the MCRD and commission were slow to acknowledge the significance of what they were hearing — as Flint residents were being lied to and dismissed by state officials, some of whom are among the 13 since indicted. This was a particularly pointed admission for Flint residents to hear since, as the report put it, they had been told the MCRC “offered your last hope for obtaining a measure of justice and respect.”
The other six recommendations, in brief are as follows. More detail and the report as a whole are available at the MCRD site,
2. Develop deep understanding of the roles of structural radicalization and implicit bias. Specifically,the commission called upon the Governor’s office to provide training to its Cabinet, the Mission Flint group, and all state departments, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Quality. Employees from both the DHHS and the DEQ were among those indicted by Attorney General Bill Schuette last year.
3. Provide “environmental justice to all people in Michigan,” in part by writing and legislatively adopting an “environmental justice plan” to include “meaningful community participation,” interagency cooperation, and an appeals process for contested decisions.
4. Replace or restructure Michigan’s emergency manager law, and in the process assure that if an EM is appointed in the face of a fiscal emergency, locally elected represented government should continue to play some role. One panel member commented the EM system had “wiped out the voice of the community.”
5. Acknowledge the role of race and racism to adopt policies that consider and address it. “While we almost universally recognize that racial discrimination is wrong, this consensus has not translated into decision-making or policies,” they wrote.
6. Rebuild trust and credibility through the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission and the integration of a racial equity framework within state government.
7. Create and implement a form of regional government (or regional cooperation) that would require suburbs and the urban cores from which they grew to work collaboratively to solve problems.
Some in the audience — about 60 in the first comment session and 25 in the second presentation — still were not satisfied and expressed despair over the commission’s report, implicating the causes of Flint’s troubles as most attributable to longstanding historical conditions. Many of those who spoke have become familiar faces the water crisis meetings and protests, and were on a first name basis even to some of the commissioners.
As water activist Tony Palladeno put it during public comment, “You guys are going to drive out of here and we’re never going to see you again.” He took issue with the commission’s contentions about racism, saying “we’re being forced to leave this city and it’s not because of color — it’s because we’re being poisoned.”
His granddaughter Ky’Leah Palladeno sat with him at the mic, and quietly offered her own comment to the group, saying only, “I wish I could take a bath.”
Longtime community activist Claire McClinton said she believed the recommendations were not enough, declaring, “we will go forward with our own recommendations: we want Flint to be declared a federal disaster area,” and calling for the Army Corps of Engineers to come to the city and replace its pipes. “If they can do it for the Dakota pipeline, why not here?” she demanded. She also called for Medicare for all, saying, “we are sick, physically and mentally.” And she said revising the EM law was not enough, calling for it to be abolished.
Kettering professor Ben Pauli thanked the commission for helping instigate “conversations that we needed to have” but cautioned against overuse of the term “implicit bias.” It feeds into a narrative, he said, that “once upon a time we were openly overtly racist, and over time we learned racism was wrong and we became better people, but we didn’t get rid of our biases because they were so deeply engrained.” This leaves out, he said, the largest category of bias – covert bias – which is not expressly stated and possibly denied.
He also expressed disappointment that the commission had not called for the “outright repeal of the EM law.”
Activist Arthur Woodson of Flint disagreed with the recommendation for a regional approach. “The county already doesn’t like Flint,” he said, “so why would they work with us? The poor people, we are nothing to them. It’s sad that we in our own community can’t make our own decisions.”
Later, Palladeno, who said he believes the water and and those responsible remain far from trustworthy, added, “This is just one big ball of injustice.”
In response, Arbulu said, “We realize that civil rights legislation is not perfect” but that the commission hopes the recommendations will “decrease the likelihood of such tragedies occurring again.”
Commissioner Mumtaz Haque said, “We did the best that we could do. We hope things will change. It may not look hopeful, but there are good things in the recommendations that need to take place.” Commissioner Linda Lee Tarver added, “We will continue to work on your behalf.”
According to its website, the commission was created in 1963, to “carry out guarantees against discrimination” articulated in the state constitution and to investigate allegations of discrimination and to secure “equal protection” from discrimination based on religion, race, color, national origin, and — since 1976 — sex, age, marital status, height, weight, arrest record and physical and mental disabilities. It is described as engaging in not just investigation but also enforcement in determining whether unlawful discrimination has occurred. The commission members are appointed by the governor — four from each party.
The report will be delivered to Snyder, as well as to the state legislative bodies and state and local representatives. As a set of recommendations, the report does not have the force of law, though MCRD has a formal protocol for hearing discrimination complaints. As described on its website, “The Michigan Department of Civil Rights is an administrative agency representing the interest of the state. During the investigation of a complaint, the Department represents neither the claimant nor the responding party. It represents the best interest of the people of Michigan.”
Commission members said they plan to return to Flint in 12 months to assess and report on how the recommendations have been implemented.
“When the last of the civil lawsuits and attorney general criminal investigations are completed, and relief dollars from state and federal sources are exhausted, what will remain is a city and its people who will continue to fight against built-in barriers but whose voices — as a matter of public right– must never be stifled or quelled again,” the commissioners concluded.
This piece has been corrected to reflect that 13 have been indicted in the Flint water crisis, not 14, and that two of the emergency managers, not one, are among them: Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose–Ed.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.