For a brief period of time, the media was seriously focused on the Flint, Mich. water crisis. Americans seemed to respond largely with shock and outrage and took to social media to get involved in the effort to help Flint residents. Although this issue has received some sporadic coverage over the past two years, it has only recently come to the attention of the general public. However, only a week or two after the initial major news reports, mainstream news outlets seem to have stopped covering it completely. New information about the people and places affected by this incredible environmental crime is not readily available unless you choose to seek it out for yourself.
The Flint water crisis is hugely important for the US, spanning issues of race, class and environmental justice. An entire city has been drinking contaminated water for years. The state government was well aware of it and yet, little action has been taken to both give Flint residents clean water and punish the government officials who knowingly allowed this to happen.
This sudden disappearance of media attention raises the question: would this still be major news in a predominantly white, middle-class community? Would this crisis even be allowed to happen in the first place if Flint were not a town populated mostly by low-income black people?
Although the national news conversation featuring Flint seems to have come to a halt, we at the Miscellany News think that the discussion is worth continuing, especially here at Vassar, where we have a long history of social justice work. The news cycle isn’t concerned with the longer-term effects of the crisis, but that doesn’t mean we too should ignore the effects of this massively important story.
To most mainstream media outlets, Flint is no different from any site of a natural disaster. Though the initial story claims national attention, the fallout fades away quickly. It is important for us to critically examine why and how people have begun to forget about Flint. And understanding the phenomenon of the media’s selective memory, what we can do to provide assistance that will really be effective.
Thousands of Americans rallied around the initiative to bring bottled water to Flint. Water is certainly useful in the short-term. It can save lives. But shipping cases of water to the town does not address the profound structural issues that led to years of contamination, nor does it directly ask the people of Flint what help they feel their communities need.
The larger issue now lies in the systematic steps that should have been present years ago for the Flint community. The state owes conomic reparations for the families and educational support for the children who will now suffer from lead poisoning for years to come.
Other than the residents of Flint whose demands address more systemic issues, America does not seem to be paying attention to necessary changes to the political and social structures that allowed for this event to tak place. Governor of Michigan Rick Snyder is still in office, despite knowledge of the crisis long before families were notified.
Donating water is a small act that is certainly better than doing nothing. However, it does not seem that anyone is taking into account what the people of Flint need beyond immediate disaster care. Most of the media attention that Flint does get focuses primarily on the severity of the water crisis and not on what the residents require in the long term.
Many recent humanitarian disasters in the US have happened in communities that are comprised of low-income people of color, and this particular crisis was only brought to light recently even though this contamination had been taking a toll on Flint for years. In order to fully understand the depth of the crisis and how to remedy it, we first need to start recognizing how privileged communities take hold of dominant national attention at the expense of oppressed peoples.
Communities like Flint have been silenced long before the water contamination became news to the public. It is distressing although not completely surprising that Flint could only seem to garner mainstream support and sympathy went it experienced a climate disaster. The state of Michigan has declared a financial emergency in Flint every year since 2011. But of course, this never seems to make headlines.
When considering major structural disasters and our responses to them, it is also important to consider the systemic issues that have made them possible. The lead poisoning of people in Flint is more than just a crisis, it is environmental racism.
An evaluation of the racial demographics of Flint indicates that the makeup of the town is more than 50 percent African-American and about 40 percent of the general population live beneath the poverty line. Communities of color are often forgotten about in ways that white communities are not. Environmental issues disproportionately affect people of color, women, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Due to the diminishing national outcry over the lead poisoning in Flint, we at the Miscellany News feel that Vassar students have a responsibility to continue the conversation and think about the ways that we can help Flint residents in a more meaningful way. Powerful changes to our discourse are possible through the introduction of more serious study, like a course that uses recent instances of social injustice and environmental racism to think more broadly about effective methods to resist the forces that lead to Flint’s water contamination.
Vassar’s response to refugee crises have led to a functioning organization that has helped create a class this semester that will seek to unpack the vast complexities of this global event. The College’s response to instances like the Flint water crisis need to be just as long-term and wide-sweeping, in order to address the growing medical and educational needs of Flint residents.
While taking reactionary measures to support Flint residents is incredibly crucial at this time, it is also important to use instances like Flint seriously consider how these events can be prevented. More substantial steps toward confronting environmental racism and social justice issues will enable Vassar students to think more deliberately about these crises and the media coverage they receive. The point is to understand the structural problems that set the stage for the Flint crisis and to work to keep these social injustices in the headlines longer.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.