Karen Weaver, who was elected mayor in November 2015, 18 months after the fateful decision had been made to switch the source of Flint’s water supply, said had the city not been either predominately African American and poor, the crisis may not have happened, or else the response would have been different.
“I sure do. And I was not the only person who thought this,” Ms Weaver told The Independent in an interview in her office.
“One of the things we can’t forget is, the facts are the facts. This is a majority minority city. Not only did race play a factor, but class played a role, because of our high unemployment rate.”
Thousands of people suffered lead poisoning as a result of the decision to switch the source of the city’s water, a move that was taken while Flint was under state supervision. Officials then allegedly sought to hide that the water was too dangerous for people to drink.
At least 12 people died after more than 80 people were infected with Legionnaires’ disease, which was also linked to the contaminated water. A total of 15 current and former local and state officials have been charged with crimes ranging from willful neglect of duty to manslaughter.
Ms Weaver said her views were supported by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which in February published the results of year-long investigation into the implications of the crisis from a human rights perspective.
The group concluded that a mix of “historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias” led to decisions, actions and consequences in Flint that would not have been allowed to happen in primarily white communities such as Ann Arbor or East Grand Rapids.
“We strongly believe that the actions that led to the poisoning of Flint’s water and the slow response resulted in the abridgement of civil rights for the people of Flint,” said Arthur Horwitz, co-chair of the commission during the time of the investigation.
“We are not suggesting that those making decisions related to this crisis were racists, or meant to treat Flint any differently because it is a community of colour. Rather, the response is the result of implicit bias and the history of systemic racism that was built into the foundation of Flint.”
The most recent census found the city of Flint, which has a population of around 100,000, is 57 per cent black, 37 per cent white, 4 per cent Latino and 4 per cent mixed-race. At least 41 per cent of residents live below the federal poverty level.
Many in the city, which has lost around 2,000 residents since the water crisis struck four years ago, believe race was a factor in the way the authorities responded.
Tom Norman, a workman who was filling his pickup truck at a petrol station in the North End, likened the official response to the widely criticised way George W Bush’s administration failed to deal properly with Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans and the Gulf coast in 2005, killing more than 1,800 people.
“If it had been Bloomfield Hills [a small town 50 miles to the southeast that is 87 per cent white], it would not have taken this much time, or any other white city,” he said. “You would have had all the help needed.”
But not everybody feels that way. Indeed, several people said the lead poisoning “discriminated against everyone”.
Robert Person, who was recently collecting free bottled water at the city’s First Baptist Church – water that had been made available by donations from across the country – said he did not believe race was a factor. In the view of him and his friends in his vehicle, it was simply the result of the decision to switch the source of Flint’s water.
“I think it’s just people in general,” said Mr Person. “It doesn’t have anything to do with black or white.”
Ms Weaver, who is African American, said the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s report had concluded that “systematic racism” had played a factor.
“Had this community been made up differently, if it had happened, it would have been addressed much quicker. We should not have to wait a year-and-a-half for people to say that brown water is bad, because kids know brown water is bad, and that’s not what you drink,” she said.
“And for us to have to be validated by scientists a year-and-a-half year later is just sad. So yes, I believe it, the community believes it. I think it was about race, and I think it was about class.”
Ms Weaver also said she was considering suing Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder, who in April said the city’s water had been tested as safe and announced the state was halting the provision of free bottled water. Ms Weaver said when she complained, Mr Snyder told her in a private meeting to “get over it”, an accusation denied by the governor’s office.
Asked about the mayor’s claim that race played a role in the way the authorities had responded, a spokesperson for Mr Snyder said “all levels of government bear some responsibility for the crisis – local, state and federal”. The spokesperson added: “Rather than focus on blame or cause, Mr Snyder is focused on moving the city of Flint forward and ensuring it is a great place to live and a prosperous community that draws new investment, jobs and residents.”
Ms Weaver is determined that the water crisis will not become the city’s defining moment. Rather, she pointed to several successful efforts to attract investment.
Last October, Lear Corporation opened a new site to manufacture car seats. The company anticipates hiring more than 430 people at facility supplying General Motors’ Flint Truck Assembly plant and employ 600 workers at full production mode by 2019.
When ground was broke last October, it marked construction of the first major automotive supplier manufacturing facility constructed in the city for more than 30 years.
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