In January, when newspapers across the country began printing shocking headlines such as “Thousands of children poisoned in Flint, Michigan,” the world was aghast. How could a city in a developed, progressive country have suffered for so long without proper action being taken? How could this have happened under the noses of a society that is so adamant about equality and the rights of its citizens? The answers to these questions is explained by society’s unfair treatment of minorities and the concepts of environmental racism and the empathy gap.
As early as March 2015, the local and state governments knew that Flint’s water supply contained E. coli. Later that fall, it was revealed that the water also contained high levels of lead, the consumption of which could lead to long-term health effects. Despite having previously attained this information, for unspecified reasons, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told its residents that the water was safe to drink. Third party research teams and a local pediatrician proved to the state that after switching water sources, the level of lead poisoning found in Flint’s children had doubled. This new evidence, coupled with a burst of national media attention, finally forced the state into action by providing tap filters for its residents. Even when made aware of the many problems with Flint’s water supply, the government remained idle— raising the question of why action was not immediately taken.
Environmental racism and the systematic empathy gap that it causes lie at the root of the government’s inaction. This empathy gap refers to a mental bias, often subconscious, where a person undervalues the pain experienced by another, typically a minority. Even with conclusive data proving the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wrong, the government was unable to comprehend that its plan to cut costs—taking Flint off of Detroit’s water supply—was endangering the lives of its citizens. It underestimated how the lives of residents in Flint, a city that is 56 percent black with 42 percent of the inhabitants living under the federal poverty line, would be affected by the crisis.
Socioeconomic status is key to one’s experience with the empathy gap. A middle-class citizen is more likely to relate and empathize with someone of a similar socioeconomic background than with someone who falls under the federal poverty line. Becoming more rich and powerful can limit relationships with those who have less power by causing economic and, from that, social disparities. Due to this, those who are more fortunate and in higher positions of power have the responsibility to consider the needs of those from lower social classes instead of only considering the most economical strategy to save money.
The events that occurred in Flint are not unprecedented, nor unrivaled in deplorability; rather, there is a history of environmental racism in this country and the world which, blanketed by the belief that it is impossible in suc
h forward thinking countries, is allowed to continue. We cannot reverse what happened in Flint, Michigan. No one is able to cure the city’s children of the poisoning they experienced over the course of the year. What we can do is discourage environmental racism in America’s cities by acknowledging its existence and by adjusting how we personally react to it in our everyday lives. By embracing empathy and attempting to understand others, the world and Flint will be all the better for it.