by Natalia Nazarewicz, Class of 2018, Yale Law School
“If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?” (New York Times)
“Was the city neglected because it is mostly black and about 40 percent poor?” (CNN)
On February 4, the Yale Law School chapter of ACS, in partnership with the Black Law Students Association and the Yale Environmental Law Association, hosted a dinner discussion, “The Flint Water Crisis and Environmental Racism,” to examine the events in Flint, Mich., from a critical race theory perspective. Forty students from the law school, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and School of Public Health took part in the conversation.
Visiting Professor Khiara M. Bridges moderating a discussion on the Flint water crisis and environmental racism
Visiting Professor Khiara M. Bridges launched a lively, hour-long discussion by putting the Flint water crisis in context: Activists and academics have been aware of a relationship between race, income and risk of exposure to pollutants since the 1970s, and even the Reagan administration knew that environmental hazard sites were predominantly located in nonwhite neighborhoods. Although the link between environmental hazards and race persists even when controlling for poverty, politicians have been loath to acknowledge race as a factor.
The crisis in Flint happening now is neither new nor unique, Bridges noted. The residents of Chester, Pa., a small city with a low-income African American population, have been in litigation since the 1990s to stop the proliferation of waste treatment plants and other industrial hazards that process toxins from the surrounding, more affluent and white communities. And on the global scale, corporations seeking to avoid U.S. environmental regulations regularly send waste to other countries—largely poor and nonwhite—causing significant health effects and environmental degradation. Looking at such environmental injustice through a critical race theory lens is helpful, Bridges said, as it helps explain how we arrived at a certain point and helps inform our responses to it.
A number of students highlighted the link between lead exposure in utero or during childhood and subsequent learning disabilities and behavioral problems, concerned that African American children, who already face stereotypes in school as “difficult,” could be hampered for decades through their exposure to Flint’s water. “We need to acknowledge the behavioral and mental effects of lead on the children of Flint as a population-wide structural problem,” Bridges noted, “without individualizing the ‘bad behavior’ onto specific children.”
Lead poisoning is long-lasting and irreversible, and the effects could be felt in Flint for decades. “This goes beyond the school-to-prison pipeline,” remarked Shannon Prince, JD ’17. “This is like a placenta-to-prison pipeline.”