Recently, I've been reminded of Mark Twain's observation that "truth is stranger than fiction." The indictment of 13 defendants charged with facilitating the lead poisoning of Flint, Mich.'s, mostly African-American citizens underscores Twain's point.
The Flint water crisis illustrates how contemporary U.S. racial oppression operates, especially the intertwining of race and class. It also reinforces my belief that the true character of racial oppression is revealed during crises.
In "Three the Hard Way," a 1974 Blaxpolitation film, characters played by Jim Brown, Fred "the Hammer" Williamson and martial artist Jim Kelly thwart a white supremacist plot to commit genocide against African-Americans. In the film, neo-Nazis poison the water supply of major cities with a drug that only affects black people. The film's storyline was widely panned as "far-fetched and a bit comic-bookish."
After the Flint water crisis, that film's plot does not seem implausible. Yes, the method, a toxin that only affects black people, is ridiculous. However, the film's basic premise, neo-Nazis attempting African-American genocide, is not fantasy.
Moreover, what actually happened in Flint is more fantastic and sinister than the film's fictional plot. The truth of Flint is that malicious or criminally negligent public officials can use the public water supply to poison people deemed superfluous.
For their roles in the Flint water crisis, right-wing former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged 13 public officials and civil servants with numerous crimes. Nick Lyon, former director of the Department of Health and Human Services; Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical officer; Liane Shekter-Smith, former chief of the Department of Environmental Quality's Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance; and former Flint Emergency managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Early are the most prominent officials indicted.
Charges against the 13 range from willful neglect of duty, misconduct in office, false pretenses, obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to commit involuntary manslaughter.
While serious, these indictments pale compared to what Flint citizens accuse the group of. Flint Councilman Wantwaz Davis alleged genocide. He posited, "Either they are trying to run us out of here, the low/moderate income people, or inadvertently or intentionally — I hope that it's inadvertently — I think that it's going to create a genocide."
Flint's most famous citizen, radical filmmaker Michael Moore, echoed Davis when he declared Flint's water crisis "a racial killing ... a version of genocide."
Lead is a dangerous neurotoxicant. And according to Boston University School of Public Health Professor Linsey J. Butler, constitutes "the most well-established threat to children and pregnant women." Children exposed to lead can develop anemia, suffer kidney damage, colic, muscle weakness and brain damage. Pregnant women can experience fetal death, premature delivery and give birth to low-birth-weight children. And children exposed as a fetus may experience lower intelligence.
Faced with the mounting crisis in Flint, more than a dozen public officials and civil servants willfully chose to deny evidence, delay action and misrepresent the state's role in creating the calamity. Given the callous nature of official decisions, the long-term effects of lead poisoning and the colonial character of the decision-making process, describing Flint's water crisis as genocidal seems reasonable.
Race was a factor in the implementation of the Local Financial and Stability of Choice Act. This law allows the governor to strip decision-making authority from elected local governments and bestow it to a single state-appointed emergency manager. Between 2009-2013, six of the 10 cities subjected to this authoritarian measure were majority African-American. Fifty-one percent of African-American and 17 percent of Latino citizens, compared to 24 percent of white residents, lived under emergency managers.
The economic distress of cities like Flint is not mainly a product of poor fiscal management. The socioeconomic condition of such cities is the result of federal and state policies and private corporate disinvestment.
Since the 1940s, governmental policies have favored suburbanization. It has also neglected urban infrastructure development and undermined local governmental power to the advantage of private corporations. These policies promoted uneven development and exacerbated fragmentation and racial inequality.
What urban scholars call uneven development and fragmentation, black studies scholar activist Robert Allen calls it domestic neocolonialism. In "Black Awakening in Capitalist America" (1969), he explains why and how this form of racial oppression relies on black elected and appointed officials. Blacks who accept the dominance of market logics are preferred for this neocolonial role. Their function is to manage cities and social service agencies with large black populations and clienteles.
Pursuing the austerity politics demanded of the position, Early authorized the switch to water from the highly polluted Flint River to save $2 million. He also callously dismissed citizen complaints and scientific evidence of the water's toxicity.
Neocolonial managers work best when they possess authentic "black" credentials. As a life member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest African-American fraternity, and a member of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, Early had the requisite qualifications.
The central role of black administrators is designed to mask the racist implications of neoliberal austerity-induced disasters. Yet, like Katrina, the Flint water crisis instead reminds us that it is during catastrophes, when hard choices have to be made, that U.S. policymakers' racial preferences and antipathies are revealed. These moments reinforce the truth that American genocidal practice is stranger than fiction.
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is email@example.com.