It is Just Flint

7 Mar

Ruth Wilson Gilmore powerfully defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” By that definition to decry the exposure of the citizens of Flint–who are predominately poor or working class, predominantly people of color–to poisoning by lead and other pollutants in their drinking water “environmental racism” is a pleonasm, or a Hurstonian double-description. Racism shapes lived environments from neighborhood composition and location, to the likelihood of being able to traverse space unmolested. Environmental toxicity is just one of the many somatic effects of racism, which ranges from poorer sleeping to higher likelihood of suffering from hypertension or living in an area without access to good nutrition. Yet it is necessary to specify and name with precision the current crisis, where race predicts proximity to pollution and other environmental hazards.

Gilmore reminds us that killing is not just outright murder, and not just the police or their surrogates. Her definition also has the advantage of reminding us that neither Snyder nor his administration needs to have personal animus toward black people or the racialized poor. Those populations,  as such, are vulnerable to premature death, and the state exploited that vulnerability. It’s hard to imagine the good people of Ann Arbor, of Grosse Pointe, of Lansing facing such a dire situation. Nor should anyone. As NourbeSe Philip writes of the Zong massacre, “this should not be / is.”

Whether by willed act or depraved indifference, the government of the state of Michigan, from Governor Rick Snyder down through his administration, allowed this catastrophe (I cannot say “tragedy”) to happen. Its effects will be felt in years to come in destroyed property values, in destroyed property, in public law suits, in lost wages, in elevated healthcare costs, in families struggling to provide for the children and adults dealing with the effect of having been poisoned. It will effect communities and individual lives diverted from whatever other paths may have been available to them.

From the gradually released emails, we know that Snyder could have declared an emergency sooner. We know the warnings reached Snyder’s inner circle. We know those jailed–not yet convicted of a crime, but likely unable to afford bail and possibly innocent of any crime–were forced to drink tap water the state knew to be contaminated. We know that state employees and General Motors (the date on that article is 10/13/2014) switched to alternative sources of water before ordinary citizens could in an systematic, state-organized way. We know that the roots of this crisis are are both historical, rooted in and connected to longer urban struggles, and recent, rooted in the “emergency manager law” that effectively disenfranchised the voters in Flint and the state of Michigan twice: first, when legislators reinstated a version of the fundamentally anti-democratic law after voters moved to repeal it in 2011, and then repeatedly (in mostly majority-black cities) when duly elected city governments were suspended allowing for governor-appointed emergency managers to carry out nominally cost-cutting measures (though there’s evidence that the primary goal was privatization). We know many more things, and we know that the burden of knowing falls disproportionate on some rather than others, and that this disproportion is bad for one’s health. That’s not usually what people mean by “embodied knowledge,” but I think we must consider it in those terms. Genesee made me lose my rest.

The mass-scale disenfranchisement of the citizens of Flint (and other cities, most of which are majority black) makes the situation unique. Journalists have, understandably, used “not just Flint” in order to highlight the staggering scale of black vulnerability to both slow, agonizing death alongside violent, spectacular death. The alliance of technocratic corporatism, “law-and-order,” and the most recent forms of American authoritarianism (though people seem to think Trump is sui generis, one can emplot him and the other current candidates for president through Nixon’s assault against Black Liberation movements and Ronald Reagan launching his campaign over the graves of Civil Rights Activists in Philadelphia, MS) are indeed pervasive and ought to help us to keep in mind the generality of racist governmentality. But Flint seems to me an unusual alignment of a a proud technocrat (“one tough nerd”), brazenly anti-democratic policies, disenfranchisement, and privatization that turns on the flagrant exclusion of many people (again, mostly poor and mostly of color) from the category of “the people” without having to signal it or worry about maintaining legitimacy.  There’s something singular, ungeneralizable about Flint, and the ways concerns for deficits have been weaponized. For all we know, we still have a lot to learn from it. Flint increasingly looks like our collective future.

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