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If You Want Clean Water, Don't Be Black in America

Beyond Flint, there’s a long history of environmental racism in America when it comes to water management.

Flint resident Ruby Adolph carries bottled water and a replacement water filter. (REUTERS/Rebecca Cook )

The great Nigerian singer-activist Fela Kuti once sang, “Water No Get Enemy”—a position many Flint residents might disagree with. Now that their water has been deemed unusable due to the putrid blend of contaminants found in it, they’re searching for answers on who will foot the bill for the mess. More than half of the city’s residents are African Americans, but Michigan Governor Rick Snyder insists that racism wasn’t behind the decisions leading to the water crisis.

The mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, believes otherwise, as do many other media outlets that have been covering the situation. Snyder may not see racism, but what’s happening in Flint easily resembles a whole catalogue of other instances concerning poor water management and black communities that were certainly the result of racism. In fact, the water-management issues in Flint are tantamount to a textbook case of environmental racism.

A 2012 report from a group of international water policy and environmental justice experts points to studies showing that African Americans are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to live in homes with substandard plumbing. For African Americans living in rural settings, households are three times as likely as their white counterparts to lack plumbing.

(“Race, Place, and Housing: Housing Conditions in Rural Minority Counties,” Housing Assistance Council, 2004)  

Reads the water report:  

The combination of discriminatory land-use patterns and the impacts of urbanization means that water issues in a low-income community or community of color may be easily overlooked. Whereas many of the water-related impacts of urbanization are related to local planning and permitting decisions, it is also local-level planning that has influenced the concentration of low-income communities and communities of color into marginal urban geographies.

These problems date back to long before EPA came on the scene, though. The soft-launch for racial water woes can be traced back to Reconstruction, when newly emancipated African Americans were escaping the South to flee racial terrorism and to land factory jobs in Northern cities. Instead, they merely walked into racism of a different font, one that packed them into the least desirable areas of the cities, cordoned off from where white families lived.  

“You have this double whammy of lots of Europeans coming into Northern cities before World War I, and then during the war you have African-American immigration, which leads to even more densely packed cities,” says Carl Zimring, the Pratt Institute sustainability studies professor who wrote about the history of racial discrimination in waste management in his recently released book, Clean and White, a History of Environmental Racism in the United States. “So the question becomes: ‘Who will have access to city services, or to clean water and air?’”  

Early sociologist W.E.B. Dubois found answers to this question in his 1899 study of Philadelphia, one of the first major studies to show the effects of urban living on African-American health. Surveying the homes of 2,441 black families in one city ward, he found that fewer than 14 percent had access to bathrooms. For those who could find a bathtub, many were “not supplied with hot water and very often have no water-connection at all” compared with white Philadelphians, who more often had full running-water bathrooms in their homes. Wrote DuBois:  

For so large and progressive a city its general system of drainage is very bad; its water is wretched, and in many other respects the city and the whole State are "woefully and discreditably behind almost all the other States in Christendom." The main movement for reform must come from the Negroes themselves, and should start with a crusade for fresh air, cleanliness, healthfully located homes and proper food. All this might not settle the question of Negro health, but it would be a long step toward it.

Such conditions persisted in black communities in northern cities throughout the 20th century, until African Americans in small, rural Warren County, North Carolina, decided they’d had enough. Vexed by a state decision to dump thousands of gallons of PCB-laced soil into a landfill not far from their homes and farms, the Warren County Citizens Concerned About PCBs held a weeks-long campaign against this move in 1982, fighting off police and government officials to stop the dumping. The residents were afraid that toxins from the tainted soil would leech into their groundwater, causing health problems.

At the time, Warren County had just secured a water utility system, thanks to the fledgling Soul City project, built in the late 1970s as a safe haven of sorts for African Americans from racial discrimination. In fact, the new water sanitation system was one of the first institutions Soul City’s architects built, providing Warren County with a service it had previously gone decades without.   

Meanwhile, the state was planning to place another landfill just down the road in Rogers-Eubanks, a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Black residents of Roger-Eubanks reluctantly handed over land in their community in the early 1970s for the landfill under a gentleman’s agreement that Chapel Hill would provide new water and sewer connections, among other municipal services. Chapel Hill is only just this year making good on its end of the deal. As Vann Newkirk II wrote about this in The New Yorker:

Rogers-Eubanks provides an object lesson in the political and regulatory difficulties that communities of color can face once a hazardous-waste facility is built. For three decades, none of the parties listed on the original deed of sale for the 1972 landfill—the Town of Chapel Hill, the Town of Carrboro, and Orange County—followed through on Lee’s promises. In the same time period, the county requested grants from the E.P.A. to extend water and sewer services to two mostly white communities in the same watershed.  

The favoring of white communities over black communities for municipal services, mortgage lending, and transportation funding is a defining characteristic of 20th century planning policy. This tradition carried into the 21st century, as seen in Dickson County, Tennessee, which environmental justice stalwart Robert Bullard calls the “poster child” for environmental racism.

In Dickson, a community began registering abnormal levels of cancer and other illnesses, which scientists traced to a nearby landfill that contained heavy levels of a cancer-causing toxin called trichloroethylene [TCE]. Similar to the situation in Flint, government officials at all levels said that the water was fine—until they could no longer make that claim. In 2002, Dickson resident Sheila Holt-Orsted began investigating the landfill’s effects on their water supply. She found that after evidence of TCE turned up in well sources in the 1990s, white families were alerted and assisted, while her African-American family was not. A county commissioner who is white told The Washington Post in 2007 that he believed racism was behind this.

Such shenanigans continue to play out today, with another recent and notable case found in St. Joseph, Louisiana, where tap water comes in shades of yellows and browns and various grades of odors. St. Joseph is three-quarters African-American, with nearly 40 percent of its population living below poverty. A petition to the White House to intervene is nearing 100,000 signees.    

The problem is, of course, not exclusive to African Americans. A 2009 EPA report found that “approximately 13 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) homes did not have safe water and/or wastewater disposal facilities,” compared with .6 percent of non-native homes in 2005. It also found that 61 percent of drinking water systems on Native American reservations reported health and safety code violations, compared with 27 percent of public systems throughout the rest of the country  

Right now, large numbers of Latino families living in the colonias Mexican-border towns and in the San Joaquin Valley of California go regularly without treated water and basic wastewater plumbing.

(“Strategies for Increasing Access to Safe Drinking Water and
Wastewater Treatment to American Indian and Alaska Native
Homes,” EPA)

Getting back to Michigan and Governor Snyder’s denial that racism is at play— Flint’s record on this alone is pretty outstanding. The Center for Public Integrity’s Talia Buford, a Flint native, reported last year on how the cluster of mills and power plants in the city, when taken together, have compromised the local air with pollution. In The Hill, Cornell University's Worker Institute fellow J. Mijin Cha writes of this:

Flint has a long history of advocates fighting against environmental racism. In 1997, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality granted an air permit to the Select Steel "mini-mill" to operate in Flint, even though the mill would send up to 100 tons of lead and other hazardous pollutants into the city's air every year. Residents were already dealing with pollution from the nearby Genesee Power Station when the Select Steel permit was granted.

Flint is only the latest episode in an ongoing American saga that has consistently found people of color fighting for basic rights like clean air and water—and getting handed crappier versions of both. So, when Snyder told MSNBC that there was “absolutely” no racism involved in this situation, good follow-up questions would have been: How can you be so absolute? How does this Flint case differ from the multitude of similar cases that make up the canon of environmental racism in America?

“Snyder is presiding over a system of continued inequalities,” says Zimring. “Whatever he’s feeling in his heart about this is irrelevant—it’s still an issue of racism. This isn’t a matter of one isolated bad decision in one Michigan town, but rather it’s how this relates to our land-use policies and how much we do or don’t care about our fellow Americans.”

Governor Snyder has vowed to fix the problem, but it’s doubtful he can do that if he fails to recognize what lies at the heart of it.

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