How the Water Flows: Flint, Michigan vs. Memphis, Tennessee

You are halfway there. The race is almost done. You have been training for this all year and have been giving your all for thirteen miles. Endorphins are being released as your heart rate increases. Your body is covered in sweat and your mouth is raw and dry – you now have a thirst only water can quench. 

Essential to human hydration and a critical component of health and survival, water flows in various uses of our everyday lives. It hydrates, cleanses, washes, and nourishes. Here in Memphis it is something most people don’t think twice about consuming – we expect a clean-water quench. Unfortunately for the residents of Flint, Michigan, water requires intense scrutiny before being used or consumed. In Flint, people must resort to purchasing bottled water from grocery stores and super markets. This bottled water is used not only to drink but also for bathing and cooking. 

Water is supposed to be a source of nourishment and a source of cleanliness, but for the people of Flint it is a source of consistent pain and suffering. And as if to deliver one final, massive punch to Flint residents, the government still requires residents to pay a bill for water they’re unable to drink. 

Since 2014, this has been the inescapable reality for the people of Flint. Not only have they been denied a basic human necessity, but their water has produced a number of deadly health risks. Tom Carmody, of the online magazine “The Verge” and Michigan Public Radio, said “the known consequences include lead poisoning, skin rashes, and carcinogens in the water.” According to NRDC.org, a Natural Resources conservation organization, some 9,000 children, who are particularly sensitive to lead and its effects, were exposed to contaminated water. 

More disturbing still are the indications that Michigan government officials were very the cause of this pain.  

Lucas Finton, a Flint native and University of Memphis Cross Country Runner, reacts with strong emotions when asked about the topic.

“Right when there was discoloration and even a weird taste in the water,” he said, “there should have been people saying that there is something wrong. Instead they ignored the issue and continued to use water from the Flint river as a way to save money. The government caused physical and emotional harm.”

Flint has not always been this way. It was once the home to automobile giant General Motors, which has been around for over one hundred years. The factory generated thousands of jobs for Flint citizens and was a cornerstone of the city’s economy. Flint’s financial status began to deteriorate after GM shut down their factory in the city. 

2017 census figures state that over 54% of Flint’s population is African American, with over 41% of that population living in poverty. These devastating statistics can be attributed directly to Michigan’s government and their handling of several recent crises. 

In 2011, Governor Rick Snyder negated the will of local voters in a host of actions and with the appointment of an emergency financial manager in attempt to save the city from economic ruin. The appointment, actions and attempts failed, resulting in ongoing disrepair and pain for the city. 

For example, between the years of 2003 and 2013, eleven public schools were shut down. Nine of those eleven schools are located in the Northwest end of Flint, an area that is predominantly African American. Denied a primary education or a social structure as a result of these closings, many of these kids turned to a life of crime or later became homeless. Before leaving office in 2018, the same Gov. Snyder also gutted bills that would have raised the state’s minimum wage. The city’s economy and residents have continued to suffer. A Flint resident was quoted as saying that the water crisis was “like being in war, but without violence,” and Detroit Free Press filmmaker Brian Kaufman called his documentary film on the subject “An American Nightmare.”

Said Lucas Finton: “They (the government) seemed to be attempting to wipe out the city of Flint entirely.”

About 800 miles south lies our Memphis, a city known for its rich music and history and its delicious barbecue. But besides the location, Memphis and Flint share some unacceptable statistics. 

According to a study done in 2017 by Dr. Elena Delevaga, over 28% of non-hispanic Black citizens in Memphis are living in poverty, which is over 4% more than the overall poverty rate in Memphis. According to Cole Bradley, from High Ground News, “Across the Memphis metro area, the poverty rate for Black Memphians is an estimated 24.5 percent compared to 8.1 for white Memphians. Despite an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 vacant houses in the city and only 42% of black Memphians own homes compared to 72 percent of white Memphians.” This low poverty rate is caused by redlining – a segregationist practice out of the Jim Crow era, crafted with the help of local and federal governments, to purposely undermine wealth in Black neighborhoods by creating unfair policies within banks and insurance companies that target African Americans. Similar practices exist today in more hidden forms, such as a simple denial of credit for a home purchase. Such denials make wealth-building difficult or impossible, creating a never-ending cycle of poverty. 

Meanwhile, Memphis’ water and our sand aquifer are sources of civic pride and city health. But they need our oversight to keep it that way. Ward Archer – the founder of the watchdog group Protect Our Aquifer – for an April Daily Memphian editorial said “one would think the job of POA is done. Complete. Over. And it would be over except for an alarming discovery we made along the way: No one is in charge of taking care of our pristine aquifer. It’s imperative that we become better stewards of this ground and these waters on which we so depend.”

Memphis is moving in positive directions, with billions of dollars of shining new developments everywhere, but should nonetheless use Flint as a cautionary tale. The state of each city’s water health may be on opposite sides of the spectrum, but both cities have similar demographics. Flint’s story is one of poverty and neglect of the majority of its population, leading to the downfall of a once great city of American industry. And poverty doesn’t just hurt the poor, it brings the entire economy down with it. While Memphis is still far from the state of disrepair that Flint is, it is not hard to imagine Memphis getting there if a similar trajectory were followed. 

The race has ended. The sweat in your pores is beginning to dry as you chug clean, clear and cold water that hydrates your tired body. 

Hopefully one day the people of Flint will be able to do this without hesitation. Just as Memphians will hopefully be able to buy a good home and not worry about their credit or the threat of eviction. 

The cities of Flint and Memphis have a long road to travel to achieve complete equality, but through a diverse representation in our local and state government and by putting law makers in office who care as much about basic human rights as the latest and shiniest new development, the thirst of equality will soon be quenched. <>

Cecilia Fay is a Freshman at the University of Memphis pursuing a degree in Journalism. She is interested in advocacy and reading, and passionate about writing the stories that matter.

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