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Playing the blame game in Flint

| Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan continues to make daily headlines in national newspapers. As more details are released, focus has quickly shifted from determining how lead was introduced to the water source to finding someone to blame the crisis on. There is certainly plenty to go around, and most of it appears to lie with government officials who failed to take notice of or act on complaints from Flint residents.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s recently released emails show that state government officials knew of possible issues with the Flint water source well before they advised residents to stop drinking the water. Instead of taking complaints seriously, they were brushed aside or left to other departments to handle without much follow-up work.

Local government, including the appointed city manager, also played a role in allowing problems with Flint’s water to be overlooked. Ignoring citizens’ complaints, former mayor Dayne Walling claimed last April that he and his family used Flint water every day. He stressed there was no cause for concern, despite mounting evidence suggesting otherwise.

Even Susan Hedman, an EPA official responsible for the Flint area, has resigned amidst the scandal surrounding the crisis. Flint citizens and the general public are blaming the government and each level of government is pointing its finger at one another.

It is easy for someone seemingly uninvolved in the crisis to blame inept government officials. Accusing them of corruption and lack of concern for Flint residents appears to be relatively straightforward — people at all levels of government chose to ignore what the residents of Flint were saying because they are poor and the government is beholden to wealthy interests.

Even Hillary Clinton noted that something like this would not happen in an affluent, white neighborhood. Other notable figures such as Bernie Sanders and Michael Moore made similar claims that it is unacceptable for government officials to have dismissed the Flint residents’ concerns as foolish and that they did so because of their bias against Flint’s poor, minority citizens.

For an effective, long-term solution to the Flint water crisis to developed, however, we must consider the broader context of the situation and the systems and structures that allowed such an injustice to take place. The blame cannot entirely be placed on government officials, as tempting as it is. Certainly the indifferent attitudes of officials towards the Flint water crisis are unacceptable, but we cannot pretend that we are all above enabling the spread of discriminatory attitudes against the poor.

As a Michigan resident, it is frustrating to see how the state government mismanaged the situation, but I must also admit that Flint is not a dearly beloved city that people enjoy visiting. Even though it is not always expressed explicitly, there is a pervasive sentiment that Flint is an unpleasant place to drive through and a rather unfortunate city in which to live.

We all know a place like Flint — whether it is a street, a city or even an entire region — that is looked down upon due to its high levels of poverty. It is important to recognize that through our words, our jokes and their underlying implications, many of us have likely played a role in furthering these discriminatory attitudes that we are currently blaming the Snyder administration and other government officials for.

Bias against the poor is not a new phenomenon and inaction on their behalf by the government is certainly not new either. Stereotypes that the poor are lazy, do not care about education or are ineffective parents remain common, despite empirical evidence that suggests otherwise. Additionally, studies have demonstrated that senators vote more frequently with the preferences of their wealthier citizens and less often with those of the poorest among their constituents.

It is reasonable to be angry that officials ignored the complaints of residents and that there is a lack of accountability and transparency. However, we cannot all pretend to be above discriminating against the poor. When we joke about people from the South marrying their cousins or make comments about how we would never want to live in “that neighborhood,” we spread the very same prejudice that contributed to government officials ignoring the voices of the constituents they were supposed to protect.

Governor Snyder, the EPA and the local government in Flint should be held accountable for their inability to provide clean and safe water for their constituents, but we must also consider how our own inactions and attitudes of indifference and discrimination toward the poor are just as unacceptable as those of the elected officials we are holding responsible for the Flint water crisis. Perhaps they are not the only ones deserving of blame.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Excellent op-ed Elizabeth.

    Don’t forget this, too: “It is easy for someone seemingly uninvolved in the crisis to blame inept government officials.” Those who are now blaming”inept government” from Governor Snyder’s side of the aisle are the same people who for decades have been doing everything they can to “streamline” – “starve” – government out of existence. And now that the “gub’ment” they’ve been asphyxiating can’t function, they’re blaming it for not being more effective.

    Well, to these folks: Congratulations. How rare you enjoying your vision of “streamlined” privatized “gub-ment”?