The Flint water crisis looms large as an iconic example of environmental racism and the struggle for environmental justice. Environmental racism includes the disproportionate siting of toxic land uses in communities of color, discrimination in environmental policymaking and enforcement, and the exclusion of people of color from leadership in the environmental movement (Chavis 1994). Environmental justice movements aim to address these disparities, improving the air, water, food, and built environment in communities of color, and thus the health of their inhabitants.
Sociologist Katrinell M. Davis’s Tainted Tap examines the crisis in the context of uneven development with a focus on the rolling back of essential public services. The book summarizes Davis’s impressively comprehensive and diverse research, including interviews with public officials and community members, policy analysis at the national, state and especially local level, archives, institutional documents, and numerous other sources obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
What emerges is an accessibly written yet detailed account of the ways that national, state, and local policies produce what she calls a discarded city, a “depopulated, resource-starved municipality undergoing fiscal distress…[that] cripple[s] and destabilize[s] remaining community and public resources” (p. 8). International trade agreements led to the closure of General Motors (GM) auto-plants in the 1980s, creating mass unemployment, poverty, and exodus. These macroeconomic shifts, along with changes to state statutory revenue-sharing formulas, decimated the city’s tax base, and eventually resulted in bankruptcy. City services like police and fire were reduced to the point of seeming nonexistent. Schools were closed, grocery stores fled, and neighborhood-level blight became pervasive. Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager, Darnell Earley, whose charge to improve the city’s fiscal health trumped the power of its elected officials. Earley’s decision to change the city’s water source to the Flint River resulted in skyrocketing bills for citizens while exposing them to gravely elevated levels of lead, causing a host of health ailments and deaths. Residents’ complaints were ignored by government at every level for years until they were substantiated by civil engineers and pediatricians, and received national media attention.
Davis’s book builds on the work of abolitionist and geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007), who defines racism not as individual acts of meanness but as group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. Davis shows how the “persistent push to suppress resources in poor Black communities through deliberate policy choices” (p. 7) ensured that cities like Flint would be segregated and targeted Black neighborhoods for demolition. She then focuses on the period of planned shrinkage, or what she calls “benign neglect,” a term I find odd since what occurred is anything but benign and appears to be more deliberate than neglectful. But labels aside, Davis convincingly demonstrates how cities depopulated by the white flight encouraged by racially exclusive Federal Housing Administration (FHA) lending policies left Black cities struggling to stay solvent and forced to reduce essential services such as trash pick-up, snow removal, and emergency services. The statute that allowed the state to appoint an emergency manager, which led directly to the water crisis, was used disproportionately in Black cities while white jurisdictions with similar fiscal health scores remained governed by elected officials. While Gilmore’s definition of racism comes out of her work on mass incarceration, it can provide a framework to understand the health effects of racist policies that make daily life in cities like Flint so toxic.
I was pleasantly surprised to be asked to review this book for a journal focused on food. But it feels appropriate, if capacious, for several reasons. Producing food, of course, requires water; and food and water, along with shelter, are the most essential of our human needs. I’ve also long argued that environmental justice frameworks laid the basis for communities to pursue food justice. In the preface to Tainted Tap, Davis, who was raised in Flint, lays out her personal connection to the city. Her most vivid memory of watching the state neglect her neighborhood features the local grocery store. Full of rotting meat, stale bread, and brown vegetables, and yet charging high prices, the local market was the “store of last resort” (p. xii) for those who couldn’t drive across town. Davis describes that store as part of an insulting local landscape, “like the unexplained fires that burned throughout the night” (p. xii). This experience sparked her desire to investigate the water crisis in the context of the racialized and class-based allocation of essential services in depopulating cities. To scholars of food studies, it can also serve as a reminder. Investigating the presence or absence of a grocery store is not enough. Inequitable access to food is part of a broader landscape of neighborhood abandonment, brought on by processes of urban development that deprive poor communities and communities of color of the ability to live healthy lives, and resulting in disproportionate vulnerability to premature death. We would do well to continue to bring this important context into our work.