Poverty Alone Does Not Explain Flint and Detroit

Politics at the national and local levels revealed difficult cultural truths this week. Ta-Nehisi Coates squinted at the presidential race, when he mulled over the sincerity and insight of Bernie Sanders. The self-declared socialist presidential candidate responded to a question about reparations for Black Americans, saying the idea was implausible. Coates famously advocated reparations in a 2014 Atlantic Monthly cover story, after the idea had been dormant for decades. He pegs Sanders as insincere about political feasibility:

For those of us interested in how the left prioritizes its various radicalisms, Sanders’s answer is illuminating. The spectacle of a socialist candidate opposing reparations as “divisive” (there are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist) is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist. Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is “nil,” a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator’s own platform. 

The election of 2016, so far, has been an object lesson in how the American populace prioritizes and vocalizes its radicalisms, with Sanders on the socialist right side of the spectrum and Trump on the quasi-fascist right. Mainstream politics, however, seems much less comfortable grappling with the not-so-radical demands of the Black community. Here’s the New York Times editorial board this morning, discussing the systematic poisoning of the residents of Flint by its government:

[The emails of] Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan show a cynical and callous indifference to the plight of the mostly black, poverty-stricken residents of Flint, who have gone for more than a year with poisoned tap water that is unsafe to drink or bathe in. There is little doubt that an affluent, predominantly white community — say Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills — would never face such a public health catastrophe, and if it had, the state government would have rushed in to help.

Institutional racism is when a presidential candidate can advocate unprecedented, and wildly implausible, class-based wealth distribution as the solution to America’s woes, while dismissing race-based distribution as “divisive.” White supremacy is when white officials ridicule Flint’s black residents for expressing concerns about their tainted drinking water, while the state’s Republican governor ignores those concerns for a year.

There are obvious parallels with schools, which Rebecca Sibilia analyzed, drawing connections between the systemic failures in infrastructure that stretch from public works to public schools. I agree with her outrage, but I wish more education commentators would be direct about the racism that underpins these instances. Flint, and the state of Michigan, represent an example of how class and poverty alone cannot account for the kind of injustice experienced by Black communities nationally. As Louise Seamster and Jessica Wilburn point out, writing at The Root, more than half of all of Michigan’s Black citizens have lived under state-controlled emergency management in the last decade, whereas only two percent or white citizens have:

EFMs are supposed to take over cities based on a neutral evaluation of financial circumstances—but majority-white municipalities with similar money problems have not been taken over. Flint’s poisoning is one effect of the systematic stripping of black civil rights in Michigan.

While the state has relied on emergency management as a panacea in Black communities – including the embarrassingly mismanaged Detroit pubic schools – the state almost never strips White residents of their electoral sovereignty in the interest of civic improvement. As I said on the blog last year, talking about state control in reference to education reform:

somehow we have arrived at a point wherein placing value on student achievement results is mutually exclusive to respecting the voting rights of African-American communities. There is no education reform in a world where the values of voting rights and student achievement are in conflict, for it forces communities to balance their current sovereignty against their children’s future.

The next generation of school improvement – and community development – must treat local sovereignty, community self-determination, and measurable improvement as powerfully reinforcing, not mutually exclusive. The alternative is many more Flint water systems and Detroit public school systems.