Saturday marks the sixth anniversary of the day the City of Flint switched its water supply source to the Flint River, systematically poisoning its heavily black population. The fallout from that fateful decision includes the lead poisoning of more than 25,000 children, many of whom now struggle daily with long-term developmental delays, learning disabilities, behavioral problems and brain damage as a result.
This occasion arrives amid a historic pandemic that is ravaging black Americans at a disproportionate rate. Black Americans are 133% more likely to contract COVID-19, with deadly consequences. While black people make up only 14% of Michigan’s population, they account for 40% of COVID-19 deaths.
It’s hard to look at these separate but related tragedies without concluding, as I did in my book, “Open Season,” that black Americans are victims of genocide inflicted by their own governments.
In the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the United Nations defined genocide as an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” These acts include killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, and “deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
The factors that have rendered black Americans disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 are obvious — lack of access to testing and health care; reliance on crowded housing and public transportation; dependence on hourly wage jobs that don’t accommodate sheltering in place; disproportionately high prevalence of underlying health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and chronic lung disease that also grow out of poor access to preventive care.
The simple fact of being born black in America is a risk factor for all kinds of threats leading to illness and death. Black neighborhoods have long been the dumping ground for toxic waste sites, cancer-causing power plants and transmission lines, factories that spoil air quality, and poorly constructed and maintained housing that threatens its occupants in myriad ways.
The fact that the victims of the Flint water crisis are mostly black cannot be ignored or discounted. As the Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded in 2017, “the vestiges of segregation found in Flint made it a unique target.”
Six years later, the children of Flint and their parents live with the fallout. As if poor children in struggling schools weren’t at enough of a disadvantage, now 70% of Flint students evaluated require special accommodations for ADHD, dyslexia or mild intellectual impairments.
Now, in addition to those issues, families in Flint needs to dodge COVID-19 and try and keep up with schoolwork from home without the devices, the access to broadband, or the special education support they need.
On this sixth anniversary of the tragedy of Flint’s poisoning of its own people, we would do well to step back and look at the bigger picture of our society’s treatment of black people in America.
It’s not an easy picture to look at, but now is the time to confront the shocking and shameful realities, while the eyes of the nation are upon us and cannot look away.
Ben Crump is a civil rights attorney based in Tallahassee, Fla.