Climate change is a prominent threat to the lives and livelihoods of Michiganders, and there are certain communities that are especially vulnerable — Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), as well as low-income people and families.
Many individuals within these communities have been victims of injustice for decades, due to policies that explicitly marginalize People of Color when it comes to social services such as education and housing. In recent decades, communities in urban areas of Michigan have fallen victim to environmental injustice, and have been impacted negatively by the lack of attention state policymakers give to both environmental crises and marginalized communities. This is most evident with the Flint Water Crisis (2014-present), a public health catastrophe with horrific origins in discriminatory public policies and environmental injustice.
A Brief History of Racial Injustice in Michigan
Michigan has a long history of segregation defining the makeup of its communities. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), a U.S. agency established during the Great Depression in 1934 by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has historically steered federally-backed mortgages away from neighborhoods with high BIPOC populations in favor of White neighborhoods. This began the process of redlining, a discriminatory practice which outlined areas with sizable African American populations, and effectively isolated them from investment opportunities and public spending. Racial segregation was essentially an official part of the federal mortgage insurance program in the early twentieth century, due to fears that properties in integrated neighborhoods would be “too risky” for insurance, and would bring down property values. The program significantly improved home ownership for White, working-class Michiganders, while Black residents did not receive any benefits — the policy has been deemed a huge contributor to the stark racial wealth and generational wealth gap present in the country today.
Segregation continued in Michigan, both formally and informally. In 1941, a wall was built along Eight Mile Road, typically viewed as the cut-off point between Detroit proper and the surrounding suburbs. This served as a physical representation of the separation between the White and Black communities of the Detroit Metropolitan Area. Even today, some parts of the six-foot tall wall still stand, serving as a reminder of the history of segregation in one Michigan community.
The legacy of redlining depreciated home values, which in turn contributed to job discrimination and continued racial inequity. Today, an area’s property taxes provide significant funding for public schools in Michigan, and school districts in poorer neighborhoods frequently struggle with limited resources and financial support. Discriminatory practices over the past century have created communities with unequal resources within the state of Michigan, which also plays a considerable role in the way the state government approaches issues in various communities.
The Flint Water Crisis
Michigan was launched into the national spotlight in April 2014, when the city of Flint switched its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River. The switch was originally made to cut costs, and aimed to save $5 million previously spent on water infrastructure. However, the switch from different water supplies meant that corrosion inhibitors were not applied to the water, and as a result there was a negative reaction between the new water supply and the lead pipes in the city’s water system. The lead from the pipes leached into the water supply, and exposed thousands of people to toxic levels of lead.
Overall, an estimated 140,000 Flint residents were exposed to lead in their water supply. Official reports state that 12 people died from the crisis due to an outbreak of Legionnaires disease, though there are likely dozens more who were impacted. Scientists also estimate that the water caused permanent brain damage in the thousands of children exposed.
The situation in Flint is greater than an error in public administration. The most recent census shows Flint’s demographic makeup as 57% African American, with 41% of the population living below the poverty line. This is in contrast with Michigan’s overall population, which is 14% Black, and 14% living in poverty.
Flint, Michigan has struggled economically for decades, beginning with an economic depression in the late 1980s when several General Motors factories closed and thousands of people were put out of work. In the decades since, the city has continued to struggle, and both the unemployment rate and poverty rate are significantly higher than the state’s average. Many community advocates argue that because of the city’s demographics and struggling economy, the government neglected Flint — an example of enduring environmental racism.
“Given the magnitude of the disaster in Flint, the role that public officials’ decisions played that led to the poisoning of the city’s water, their slow pace at acknowledging and responding to the problem, and the fact that Flint is a city of almost 100,000 people indeed makes this the most egregious example of environmental injustice and racism in my over three decades of studying this issue,” said Dr. Paul Mohai, professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Michigan in an interview with the university. Representative Dan Kildee (MI-5), who’s congressional district encompasses the city of Flint, agreed, viewing race as, “the single greatest determinant of what happened in Flint.”
Even as the Flint Water Crisis made national and international headlines, efforts to remedy the disaster wereas slow within the government. The United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that its response was not taken fast enough. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights concluded that, “a complex 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 Birmingham, Ann Arbor, or East Grand Rapids.”
Racial systemic inequities are one explanation for the poor response to the Flint Water Crisis. There is also the issue where residents of communities of color are also marginalized from decision-making processes and governing bodies, and therefore are underrepresented. In a 2018 article published by the Michigan Sociological Review, Dr. Mohai wrote that communities disproportionately burdened by environmental contamination and health risks are, “also places where residents are not given meaningful say in the decisions that affect their communities and quality of life, where their concerns about pollution and the health impacts are minimized, discounted or dismissed, and where residents are treated disrespectfully and shown they have little influence or clout.” Given that the decision to switch the water supply was approved by state-appointed emergency managers rather than democratically elected city officials, it’s clear that the people of Flint had little say in what was happening to their water source.
While environmental justice is a critical issue all across the United States, it is especially prevalent in Flint, Michigan, where low-income residents and communities of color make up a significant proportion of the population being disproportionately affected. It is evident that more work must be done to push for justice in these communities, and break past the racist boundaries that have been instilled in communities for nearly a century.
There are many environmental organizations within the state of Michigan that are pushing progressive policies, including the Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint, which has hosted events to educate community members on environmental justice concerns. This group focuses on issues beyond the Flint Water Crisis, and also explores disparities in health regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in Black communities.
In January 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer established the state’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council, led by Regina Strong, Michigan’s first Environmental Justice Public Advocate. This council includes individuals from a variety of backgrounds in community education, energy justice, and public policy, from a number of communities across the state. These individuals and organizations demonstrate a strong commitment to both racial and environmental justice, and push for the state to address its policy failures.
Michigan has a horrific history of racial injustice, though state leaders have the opportunity to improve life for millions of residents. The current work under Governor Whitmer’s administration has the opportunity to push Michigan in the right direction in the fight to secure justice for all, and reshape the environmental landscape for years to come.