Written by Brooks Berndt
In Psalm 94:20, the Psalmist speaks against rulers “who make injustice legal.” Before these makers of the law, the good suffer and the innocent die. At first glance, it might seem that in today’s world these ancient words would most closely relate to the dictatorships of other countries but not the United States. According to the celebrated ideals of our nation’s democracy, everyone possesses the right to vote on who will craft our laws, and thus the general welfare of the people are to be reflected in society’s governance. Yet ideals are not always reality. Thus, when I made a phone call to a community leader in Flint, Michigan named Claire McClinton to better understand the city’s lead poisoning crisis, she framed the situation as a battle of democracy versus dictatorship. Until recently, the people of Flint lacked the right to govern themselves. In 2011, Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law allowed the governor to appoint an unelected manager to any city deemed to be in financial disrepair, and Flint was one of those cities.
The history of the law embodies paternalism and racism. Despite a voter referendum that repealed the law in 2012, the legislature and governor put it back into place. As Louise Seamster and Jessica Welburn have noted in their article “How a Racist System Has Poisoned the Water in Flint, Mich.,” the governor has mainly appointed managers to cities with majority black populations. While over half of the black population in Michigan has experienced an emergency manager, only 2 percent of whites have. Flint has a population that is 52% black, and the protection of the population’s health fell by the wayside in an effort to save money. In 2014, Flint’s emergency manager decided it was financially prudent to switch the city’s water supply from Detroit to the heavily polluted Flint River. Ultimately, this is just one chapter in a longer story of Flint's collective disenfranchisement and endangerment. As the Rev. Deborah Conrad of Woodside United Church of Christ in Flint notes, an earlier chapter pertains to deindustrialization: as the auto industry with all its tax revenue abandoned Flint so did the state government.
One needs to know these chapters of history to fully understand the present reality of Flint. With such knowledge, one should not be surprised to hear a sheriff, who after going door to door in Flint listening to its residents, observed, “They have lost faith in the capacity of government to work with them. And it’s hard to say, ‘You know, you’re wrong.’ ” In many ways, the story of Flint bears out the truth of a statement that the perceptive scholar Manning Marable once made: In order for American democracy finally to become a reality for all of its citizens, we must, first, understand historically how and why these deep structures of racial inequality came into being, and how they were most decisively expressed in the daily lives and life chances of minorities and whites alike.
In the end, the Psalmist may have more to say to us today than many of us might first admit. When we finally begin to listen and to learn, then we shall be ready to write a new chapter in the story of our nation, a chapter defined by justice.