by Jim Wallis
How would you feel if you realized your children’s water was being poisoned, and your government didn’t seem to care? That’s the story of the parents of 8,000 mostly poor and black children in Flint, Mich., (which means most all of the children in urban Flint) that has finally hit our media front pages. The evening news I am watching as I write warns the parents of Flint not to bathe their young children in city water.
But the fact that most Americans realize this would never happen in affluent white Michigan suburbs (or any other white affluent communities in our country), still doesn’t penetrate our very souls. This fundamental contrast between black and white experiences in Michigan, just north of my home town of Detroit, points to the structural racism that is still the primary moral contradiction of American life. The news about Flint is just the most recent consequence of America’s Original Sin
, the title of the new book we have just launched.
The poisoning of the majority-black population of the city is a product of a system failing the people of Flint on many levels over a long period of time. To really start unpacking the historical roots of the crisis, you have to go back to slavery itself, which debased the humanity and devalued the lives of black people from well before our nation’s founding; followed by the Jim Crow era of legal segregation, discrimination, and violence against black Americans, which resulted in early 20th century migrations of black people from the segregated south to urban manufacturing centers of the northern United States. When they got there, they found cities without legal segregation, yet with de facto segregation and discrimination alive and well in both white attitudes and systems. The arrival and growth of black populations in northern cities was followed shortly thereafter by white flight to the suburbs, aided by discriminatory housing policies that effectively prevented the vast majority of black people from joining them and blocked the financing of black homes even in the cities.
As manufacturing jobs left cities like Detroit and Flint over the years, unemployment soared, property values declined, and the people who remained found themselves trapped in poverty in cities whose tax revenue was eclipsed by the services these cities are responsible for providing for their citizens. The result? Drastically inferior employment prospects, inferior education, both leading to higher crime, and inferior health outcomes for people of color in many urban centers across the country. Racial ghettos, it must be said and understood, have never been an accident, but are the results of public policy. This is a necessarily short but accurate explanation for a very complex confluence of systems that together represent structural racism. In my new book, I explain in greater depth how some of this came to be, the history behind it, and the moral challenge it presents especially to people of faith.