Flint, Michigan, used to be a majority-white city — 70% white in 1970. But then the auto industry collapsed, taking its jobs south or overseas. By the mid-1980s, Flint had the highest unemployment rate in the nation, with roughly 30% of residents out of work.

So by the time the Flint Water Crisis began in 2014, with chemical-laden corrosive water from the Flint River leaching lead from pipes — and residents being lied to about the foul-smelling water coming from their taps being safe — white flight had long been a reality. 

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In 2016, then 8-year-old Mari Copeny, Little Miss Flint, became the public face of the crisis after she wrote to former president Barack Obama, asking him to help her hometown.

But then — and now — Flint was not solely a Black city. While the majority of residents (57%) are Black, 35% of the roughly 79,000 people who live in Flint today are white, and they, too, have been affected by the water crisis. 

Given that racial diversity, why have news stories and studies so often focused on the effects the high lead levels have had on the city’s Black population? 

A Disproportionate Negative Impact

A new scientific review of studies that look at environmental pollution exposures and race helps draw a finer point of why the crisis has had a deeper impact on Black Flint. 

The review, published late last month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, looked at more than 200 previously published studies of children who have been exposed to various chemicals — predominately lead and car exhaust — in order to look at the disparities in “neurodevelopmental outcomes” for various disadvantaged social groups. 

What the researchers found is that social disadvantages — like living in poverty — can be a determining factor in the long-term effects of exposure to toxins.

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“If you have equal levels of, say, lead exposure in two children, and one comes from a family without any social disadvantage, the actual loss of IQ is greater in that child living in a home where they have some factors of social disadvantage,” lead author Tanya Khemet Taiwo, an assistant professor at Bastyr University, told Inside Climate News.  

In other words, children from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer greater cognitive harm from neurotoxic exposure than more privileged kids, even at equal exposure levels.

Poverty Made Everything Worse

Flint is as fairly described as a poor city as it is a Black one, with 41% of residents living in poverty. But when you look at how the poverty rates break down by race, it shows that the rate was higher in 2014 for Black residents (and Latinx residents, too) at just over 42%, compared to nearly 34% for white residents. 

The disproportionate negative impact on Black folks showed up in everything from a higher incidence of skin rashes to worse outcomes for babies born to Black women. And Flint’s public school system is now grappling with a student body (which is nearly three-quarters Black) that in 2020 saw more than 1 in 4 kids receiving special education services. (While there have been concerns that Flint kids are over-diagnosed with learning disabilities, there is no safe amount of lead to consume in drinking water, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

The review also showed that there are higher levels of lead exposure in both Black and low-income communities nationwide — not just in Flint. And, similarly, the review found that poor communities of color have higher degrees of exposure to car exhaust too. 

Black people — poor Black people — are more likely to suffer the negative consequences of environmental pollution.

So even though nearly all of Flint’s residents drank or bathed in poisoned water, including white folks living there, a Feb. 2017 report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission noted that it doesn’t “matter that people of color are not the only victims.” 

The water crisis was a continuation of the long history of systemic violence and neglect suffered by Black communities in Michigan and across the country. And the poverty of Black residents of Flint made everything worse.  

As the commission explained, “Race, racism, structural racialization and systemic racism were responsible for the policies and events that created white flight, which decreased property values in the city while increasing them in the suburbs, and trapped anyone who remained in Flint regardless of color.”

The same statement could be made today about Jackson, Mississippi, and Prichard, Alabama, two majority-Black cities that have recently struggled to get clean water. And so across the United States, nine years after the Flint Water Crisis began, Black people — poor Black people — are more likely to suffer the negative consequences of environmental pollution.

Willy Blackmore is a freelance writer and editor covering food, culture, and the environment. He lives in Brooklyn.