Flint’s White People, Flint’s Water Crisis, and the Race to the White House

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Thirty-seven percent of Flint, Michigan’s population is white. Approximately 14,000 of Flint’s white population live below the poverty line.

Neither statistic has factored much into discussions concerning the water crisis in Flint or in analyses of the “structural racism” that created the crisis in the first place (in fact, pundits and others have cited the statistics merely to show that Flint is, and Flint’s poor are, predominantly African American).

But these statistics matter, and they matter not only because they speak more fully to the suffering state and federal officials visited upon the people of Flint. They also matter because they betray Democrats’ and progressives’ failure to seize opportunities to speak directly to, and be in conversation with, poor and working class whites about the class and race politics that have created much of their suffering. No one who has talked about Flint – not Hilary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, not their followers, not progressives in general – has had anything to say whatsoever about just how expendable to Michigan’s white elites are the lives of Flint’s poor and working class white folk. In fact, it is almost as if whites who live at the margins in Flint don’t exist at all (or exist only so that one can make a point about black people and racism).

At a recent event in Harlem, for example, Clinton said of the water crisis: “It’s a horrifying story, but what makes it even worse is that it’s not a coincidence that this was allowed to happen in a largely black, largely poor community. Just ask yourself: Would this have ever occurred in a wealthy, white suburb of Detroit? Absolutely not.” During a town hall meeting, Sanders, too, wondered what “the response” would have been had the water crisis happened in “a white suburb.” Flint “is a poor community,” Sanders stated. “It is disproportionately African-American and minority, and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable.”

To be sure, both Clinton and Sanders probably considered whites included in the term “poor community.” But it is clear that poor white people were not the point Clinton and Sanders wanted to make. Instead, what Clinton and Sanders hoped to demonstrate (for good reason) was their understanding of how racist policies continue to constrain the lives of African Americans and to serve the interests of well-to-do whites. Or maybe what they hoped for was recognition of what New York Magazine writer Rembert Brown gleefully declared about Hilary Clinton: that they were willing to “chastise” their “own privilege” and, in so doing, to put “the privilege of whiteness front and center.”

If putting “the privilege of whiteness front and center” was what Clinton and Sanders were trying to accomplish (and I believe there’s some truth to this observation), then what they ultimately gave voice to was a class politics on the part of Democrats and progressives that erases the experiences of poor and working class whites, and does so through a racial politics that reifies the myth of a “naturalized, unmarked, homogenized, privileged white identity” (to borrow from law professor Camille Gear Rich’s “Marginal Whiteness”). This myth is one by which white elites have, throughout American history, defined white interests in terms of their own privileges, wealth, and power – as it is also one by which whites who live on the margins have framed (often to their great detriment) their own interests so as to enjoy the privileges of white identity.

Both candidates (as well as progressives who wrote about Flint) could have explicitly talked about how the water crisis was allowed to “happen” just as surely to Flint’s poor and working class white community as it was allowed to happen to Flint’s African American community; how the privileged whites and minorities who live in the “white suburbs” were provided with clean water; how anti-black racism constitutes a set of policies and practices that facilitate well-to-do whites’ exploitation of poor and working class white people (that is, after all, what happened in Flint). And both Clinton and Sanders (who just yesterday visited Flint & addressed the water crisis in front of an overwhelmingly white audience) could have had this discussion without giving credence to the fiction of equivalent victimization.

Indeed, both candidates could have discussed or put “front and center” for analysis and critique their own class privileges vis-à-vis the black and white Flint communities. They could have stated, as Rich observed, that for some whites “access…to the material and dignitary benefits associated with whiteness is not always assured,” and that some whites – like those in Flint, no doubt – “only enjoy white privilege in contingent, context-specific ways.” They could have spoken of whites – and even of African Americans – in terms of differences that belie the myth of homogeneity.

But that kind of discussion did not happen. Consequently, the Flint water crisis remains solely a story about anti-black politics.

Talking about the racism African Americans face in Flint and beyond, of course, is not the problem. In fact, it is necessary. But while Democrats and progressives sustain the myth of a homogenized, privileged white identity and choose not to be in conversation with poor and working class whites about the kind of class and race politics that creates their suffering (whether we’re talking about Flint or inadequate health care), Donald Trump fills the void. Through a racist and xenophobic framework he engages poor and working class whites directly, casting their suffering as the fault of racial others. In the process, Trump recreates and reinvents – by casting himself as the answer to all white America’s woes – the myth of a homogenized and privileged white identity as well as the fiction that white interests are white elite interests. As long as Clinton, Sanders, Democrats, and progressives offer no real alternative – as long as they persist in spinning the myth themselves –Trump might very well capture the White House this November, and with the help of poor and working class whites.

 

My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)

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