FLINT, Mich. — A government-appointed civil rights commission in Michigan says systemic racism helped to cause the Flint water crisis, according to a report released Friday.
The 129-page report does not claim there were any specific violations of state civil rights laws, but says “historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias” played a role in the problems, which still linger in the city’s drinking water almost three years later.
“The presence of racial bias in the Flint water crisis isn’t much of a surprise to those of us who live here, but the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s affirmation that the emergency manager law disproportionately hurts communities of color is an important reminder of just how bad the policy is,” state Sen. Jim Ananich, a Democrat from Flint, said.
It was an emergency manager, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, who had the cash-strapped city’s water supply changed from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014 — a decision reversed more than a year later amid reports of corroded pipes and elevated blood lead levels.
The report, which was released after a year-long investigation that followed three public hearings and took testimony from more than 150 residents and officials, says: “The people of Flint have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes, for generations.”
Among the changes it recommends is one for the law for selecting emergency managers, saying the state shouldn’t be focused solely on cost cutting. It needs more community input, the report says.
The report says one theme was common in the hearings where the public spoke. People said predominantly white cities like Ann Arbor or Birmingham, near Detroit, would have been treated differently by the state.
The report quotes a resident who said: “If this was in a white area, in a rich area, there would have been something done. I mean, let’s get real here. We know the truth.”
Flint is 57% black, 37% white, 4% Latino and the rest mixed race, according to the US Census.
A spokeswoman for the governor said he appreciated the public input shared in the report.
“We have been and continue working to build strong relationships between state government and every community we serve, and adding accountability measures to ensure a crisis of this magnitude never happens again in Michigan,” Anna Heaton said.
The amount of lead in the water in Flint has fallen and much is below the federal level acceptable limit but residents are still advised to use filtered water.
The allegation of racial bias against Flint is not new. At least one class-action lawsuit alleges discrimination.
“Our lawsuit alleges race discrimination in how and why the predominantly African-American population was exposed to contaminated river water while the surrounding predominantly white population continued to receive clean Detroit water,” attorney Michael L. Pitt said by email.
Also advocates said last year that the residents of Flint — 40% of whom live below the poverty line — were the victims of “environmental racism.”
“Would more have been done, and at a much faster pace, if nearly 40 percent of Flint residents were not living below the poverty line? The answer is unequivocally yes,” the NAACP said in a statement in January 2016.