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Let Them Eat Lead

“Black lives matter” has been the refrain of millions around the country since the events in Ferguson in the fall of 2014. Unfortunately, this statement has been ignored by most of the country’s leadership. This is particularly true in Flint, Michigan, where the water crisis has made it very apparent that the lives of the city’s black children do not matter. As a result of reckless and criminal governance, an estimated 9,000 children in Flint, a city where over 50 percent of the population is African American, now have lead poisoning. The consequences of this disease are numerous and severe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

  • Childhood lead exposure is estimated to contribute to about 600,000 children developing intellectual disabilities every year.
  • Lead exposure is estimated to account for 143,000 deaths per year, with the highest burden in developing regions.
  • Most importantly, they note, “lead poisoning is entirely preventable.”

Flint Water Response Team | creativecommons.org

As of the end of January, the water in Flint was 10 times more toxic that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows, according to the Washington Post. Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who broke the Flint story with her discoveries, recently estimated that 8,000 children under age 6 may have been exposed. Significant percentages of children in other parts of Michigan have also been exposed; in West-side Detroit for example, about 20 percent of children had lead in their system.

The WHO states “young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system.”

CJCJ researcher Mike Males has noticed the connection between high levels of lead in the body and crime. He has written that the adverse affects of lead on the brain, as noted by the WHO, results in “slower and faultier development of the brain's pre-frontal cortex and executive functions, which in turn leads to diminished impulse control, executive decision-making, and behavior regulation.” Some studies have noted a correlation between these traits and crime.

It is not surprising that poverty and race play a key role in the neglect of Flint’s water crisis. According to the New York Times, 57 percent of Flint’s population is black, and 40 percent live in poverty. What happened in Flint is the result of a social and political movement that began several decades ago called “neo-liberalism.”

This term refers to the resurgence of laissez-faire economics, one of the fundamental principles of capitalism, which claims “an economic system should be free from government intervention or moderation, and be driven only by the market forces.” It was developed by the 18th century Scottish economist, Adam Smith, who coined the term “invisible hand to describe the efficient functioning of markets that purportedly results from reduced government intervention.

Flint Water Plant

Flint Water Plant | creativecommons.org

Smith argued that human beings are naturally motivated by self-interest and, when not interfered-with, can collectively improve social welfare through unfettered competition and the free exchange of goods. What those who accept this belief fail to note that what Smith meant was that such a market only worked when there was a level playing field and equality of conditions.

There are five major points that summarize neo-liberalism:

  • Reliance on free markets, rather than government programs, as the best system to solve social problems.
  • Cutting public expenditures for social services, especially those directed at the poor.
  • Deregulation of the government (i.e., removing government regulation of business).
  • Privatization (e.g., prisons, health care, social security, etc.).
  • Elimination of the concepts of “public good” or “community” and replacing them with "individual responsibility."

In the 1980s, neo-liberalism influenced the policies of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party and became the dominant economic theory underpinning “trickle-down economics.”

Neo-liberalism persists today as the basis of the Tea Party’s anti-government stance and still undergirds the economic platform of the Republican Party. In states led by a Republican governor, it has led to massive cutbacks in vital social services, revealing a lack of concern for the underprivileged, especially minorities and the poor.

This indifference has been demonstrated by the governor of Michigan who, in an effort to save money, appointed an “emergency manager” to take over the city of Flint and use untested water from the Flint River instead of the Detroit River. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, in charge of insuring safe water, ignored protocol and did not “require the Flint water plant to use optimized corrosion control,” all the while reporting to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that they had.

The water crisis in Flint is the direct consequence of a governmental emphasis on “free markets” and reduced public spending. This affinity for cost-cutting has imperiled the health and safety of thousands of people and children of color. Flint’s crisis, born of neo-liberal thinking and a callous disregard for human life, makes clear that black lives do not matter to officials in Michigan. What has happened in Flint is criminal, and appropriate action should occur, including arrests and prosecutions.

Keywords: Black Lives Matter, corruption, crime, economics, environmental protection, Flint, government, lead, Michigan, poverty, public safety, race, racial disparities, Randall Shelden, water crisis

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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