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Flint water crisis never would have happened in affluent white neighborhood, UB expert says

Flint crisis similar to Katrina and Ferguson, says Henry Louis Taylor Jr.

Release Date: January 22, 2016

“This did not happen where prestigious white people were living. This never happens where wealthy white people live. Flint is yet another chapter in the book that is being written about oppressive and exploited conditions of African-American people.”
Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor of urban and regional planning and director of the Center for Urban Studies
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Flint, Michigan is a predominantly African-American, poor, working-class city. And the water crisis there is no coincidence, says Henry Louis Taylor Jr., University at Buffalo professor of urban and regional planning and director of the Center for Urban Studies.

“This did not happen where prestigious white people were living,” says Taylor, whose research focuses on underdeveloped urban neighborhoods and race and class issues. “This never happens where wealthy white people live. Flint is yet another chapter in the book that is being written about oppressive and exploited conditions of African-American people. This narrative happens to be about a serious health problem where black and low-income whites were put in harm’s way by people attempting to save money.

“This is structural racism in action.”

A switch in the water supply in April 2014 led to elevated levels of lead in drinking water. The switch, from the Lake Huron supply that Detroit uses to the Flint River, was implemented to save money.

Complaints about the water began within a month of the move, but Flint did not return to Detroit water until October 2015 after tests showed elevated levels of lead.

Taylor compares what is going on in Flint to New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina and Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown.

“You see great disasters in all these situations that impact black- and low-income groups, but when you look even deeper, you see a community in New Orleans, for example, where the infrastructure was poorly maintained and in Ferguson when we look deeper we see a community devastated by the subprime mortgage crisis,” he says. “The dirty little secret is that systematic racism attacks both black people and the places where they live.”

When it comes to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and how his administration has dealt with the water crisis, Taylor says it really is not about politicians.

This is a systematic issue, he says.

“I don’t care about what happens to that governor as much as I care about what happens to the system and the people of Flint,” Taylor says. “Punishing the governor or firing people might satisfy the public, but it won’t mean a thing if the system that produced the problem is not changed. If we don’t get the system to change, then Flint would have been in vain. We need systems changed when it comes to how we deal with infrastructure, housing and the environment where black- and low-income people live.”

To find UB faculty experts on other topics – including issues trending in the news – visit UB’s Faculty Experts website.

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