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Civil Rights Commission cites "systemic racism" in its Flint water crisis report

Feb 17, 2017

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission is out with a report on the Flint water crisis that its authors intend will ensure that “another Flint does not happen again."

Commission chair Arthur Horwitz thanked Flint residents for sharing their stories during their year-long investigation.

“At a time when you placed  trust in virtually no government entity, you looked at this commission and department … and provided us with an opportunity to earn your trust,” says Horwitz.

The report finds the city’s lead-tainted tap water crisis is the result of a series of issues – some a few years old, others dating back more than a century.

The commission held three public hearings, where commissioners took testimony from Flint residents and civil rights experts. During the hours of hearings, Michigan’s emergency manager law was repeatedly cited as a major problem.

The MCRC’s final report calls for replacing or restructuring Michigan’s emergency manager law. The report finds Michigan’s emergency manager system is flawed, since looking out for the interests of city residents is not the emergency manager’s first priority.

Balancing the books alone is at least as much about the welfare of creditors and other outside interests, as it is about the residents. Investing to build a better future is not part of an emergency manager’s job, but it should be.

Nevertheless, the report does not limit its view of Flint to the past few years.

The 135-page report cites "systemic racism” dating back more than a century as a contributing factor.

“We say yes, race did play a role,” says Commission Executive Director Augustin Arbulu.

As far back at the turn of the 19th century, the report blames “systemic” and “structural” racism for Flint’s myriad of issues, from housing and schools to the current water crisis.   

Events leading to the Flint water crisis did not begin with the decision to temporarily use the Flint River as a water source or joining the Karegnondi Water Authority to use Lake Huron water as a permanent source. Nor can it be viewed as starting with the appointment of an emergency manager.

The commission says it’s important to acknowledge the role race and racism have played, both in the past and today. To rebuild trust, the report recommends state employees get training to understand implicit bias, adopt policies to counteract past racism and provide environmental justice to all people in Michigan.

One recommendation in the report is sure to raise some eyebrows, especially in suburban communities in Genesee County. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission suggests a way to avoid problems like the Flint water crisis in the future is to create a regional government, or at least some form of regional cooperation. The report also calls for the creation of a "trust commission" to help Flint residents regain trust in local and state government. 

In the end, the report does not single out just one cause of Flint’s water crisis.

There is no single cause for a crisis like the one still occurring in Flint; it requires a perfect storm of causes. Pointing the finger at any one specific cause for this crisis does not diminish the fact that the legacy of past policies in areas like housing, employment, the tax base and regionalization are all interconnected to the present.

The commission decided not to pursue a civil rights lawsuit to force changes, citing the plethora of civil and criminal cases already flooding the courts.