"In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" - MLK's I Have a Dream Speech, 28 August 1963
I had forgotten this part of the famous speech, but my breath caught as I heard it today while watching with my 17 month old son. I had already been thinking about my home state of Michigan's role in MLK's life and legacy; the Detroit speech of June 1963 that in served as a trial run of parts of the August speech on the mall; John Conyers' (D-MI) role in proposing the national holiday; Michigander Stevie Wonder's role in reinvigorating the push for national recognition. I hadn't thought of how current events in Flint relate to King's words.
And relate they do, at least in my view. A city is without clean water and lead may have irrevocably damaged many young lives. That city's residents are majority black in a state that's majority white (and I'd be willing to wager the incidence of lead poisoning will end up including a greater proportion of non-whites than the city's population as a whole). The critical decision (in my mind, the flip to the Flint River water while waiting for a new regional water authority to come onstream) was made (as best I can tell) by a white emergency manager, Ed Kurtz, appointed by a white Governor, Rick Snyder; that decision + those of a state executive agency (the MI Department of Environmental Quality) are chiefly to blame for the tragedy. A local doctor whose research contravened the state's claim that the water was safe was, by some accounts, not given adequate attention is not white.
Unlike many Michigan liberals, I haven't had strong negative feelings about Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder. While I didn't vote for him, I did consider it, in part because I saw him as the kind of moderate Republican with a focus on prudent economic management that I've always seen as the best argument to vote Republican. But it strikes me that if it was where I went to high school (Farmington Hills, MI; while I claim Oak Park, MI as my hometown I moved when I was 13) rather than Flint where the precipitating decisions took place resolving this issue - recognizing the problem - would NEVER have taken so long. In Farmington Hills the guy who lived down the street used to work with Snyder before he was governor. Any of dozens of residents in this (fairly liberal, fairly white) suburban community would surely have had the influence to get the state to pay attention before they did, after lead had started showing up in their childrens' blood.
This doesn't mean that the state acted with discriminatory intention, or even any ill will, towards Flint; it just means that Flint is a community without power in the current state of affairs. And even if no one meant ill, the incidence of the problem falls on those who - to crib from MLK - have so often found their checks returned for 'insufficient funds' when drawn on the bank of justice, basic services, and equitable treatment. My suspicion that this is about differential networks of influence rather than actual discriminatory intention does nothing to remove the lead from the water or give poisoned children and their families back what has been taken from them.