The Michigan Supreme Court’s June 28th dismissal of charges against former Governor Rick Snyder and eight of his appointees has left Flint residents wondering if anyone will ever be held criminally liable for poisoning the city’s water supply.
The facts of the case are, by now, widely known: in a cost-cutting measure, state officials switched the city’s drinking water source from Detroit’s municipal utility to the Flint River in the spring of 2014, exposing the mostly Black population to lead and other toxins, and sickening nearly 100,00 residents; 12 people would ultimately die from Legionnaire’s disease caused by the move.
What’s not so well known is that Flint’s water remains unsafe to drink to this day, and the legislation responsible for the public health crisis remains intact. Approved by Michigan lawmakers in 2012, Public Act 436 allows the state to replace mayors, city and town councillors, and even school boards with unelected “emergency managers” who are statutorily authorized to rewrite all municipal contracts save one: they are forbidden to renegotiate the interest rates on municipal loans, or bonds, made by Wall Street banks.
Since the law was passed, state officials have appointed emergency managers to manage 23 “financially distressed” communities in Michigan; all but one is majority African American. Constitutional lawyers have decried the Michigan law a clear violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
Flint residents routinely refer to the city’s takeover by an emergency manager as a coup d’etat.
Melissa Mays, a Flint water activist told Democracy Now on Thursday following the state Supreme Court’s ruling. “Not a lot’s changed. Basically, the state (is) still making all of our decisions for us. They’re making the decisions about us without us.”
“The racial contours of Michigan’s emergency manager law are undeniable,” said Darius Charney, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This law has been used to deprive the majority of Black voters in Michigan of their right to a democratically-elected government. Those communities have also borne the devastating costs of the law, including the health effects of the Flint water crisis, which will affect many people for the rest of their lives.”
While perhaps an extreme example, Michigan’s controversial law raises a troubling—if unavoidable—question about the state of the nation’s democracy as the Republic prepares to celebrate its 246th birthday: Are African Americans still slaves?
Simply asking the question might seem off-putting to some who would argue that Blacks are no longer forced at gunpoint to work for free. But scholars have for years insisted that ownership alone does not define the relationship between master and slave.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery In The New World,” the historian David Brion Davis contends that slaves are in fact defined as a “perpetual condition of dishonor,” which provides the “master class with a resource for parasitic and psychological exploitation.”
This, Davis argues, imposes on the slave a type of “social death” leaving him “wholly excommunicated from civic life,” not unlike livestock (the etymology for the word “chattel” is derived from the Latin word for both “capital” and “cattle”).
Additionally, Davis quotes the Greek 6th-century reformer Solon, who explained his decision to abolish slavery: “All the common people,” Solon said, “are in debt to the rich.”
What Solon said in ancient times holds true today, especially for the nation’s 41 million Blacks, whose debt-to-asset ratios eclipse that of Whites by nearly 50%.
Whether the principal commodity is cotton or cars or credit, debt, dishonor, and alienation, or social death, remain central elements of the African American experience in the U.S. as evidenced by Flint’s water crisis and a prison industrial complex that jails more of its citizens than any country in the world, and more, even, in absolute numbers, than China, with a population that is five times larger.
The result is two nations in one, with Whites’ overall living standards rivaling Canada’s or Western Europe, while Blacks live a life that is closer in quality to Mexico or Palestine.
Whites in the main, exercise near-total control over the lives of Blacks in the workplace, at City Hall, and in the schools. Consider this: the poisoning of Flint’s water supply is a prime example of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which explores the institutional foundations of enduring racial disparities.
But the teaching of CRT, as it’s come to be known, has been banned by 66 states and local school boards across the country; Michigan is one of several states considering a ban.
“All we’re doing is carrying out the curriculum that has been handed down to us by White people, “ Sharrieff De’Johnette, the founder of the Heights Community Project in Hampton, Virginia, told the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder in an interview. “We, as African Americans, are a serf population that is owned by the king and that king is White people,” said De’Johnette, who recently obtained a doctoral degree in education.
“We get confused because no one is in bondage but . . .all we know is a colonial world populated with neo-plantations. Who built and theorized all those spaces? Who built and created all those spaces? White people did.”
Continuing, he took aim at Barack Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus. “Nothing [Obama] did was for the empowerment of Black people; he merely carried out what he had been instructed to do. . . .The CBC is just one big plantation as well. They don’t do anything to empower Black people. Give me an example when the CBC has acted independently of the Democratic party; they’re a colony.”
De’Johnette said that the first step for the emancipation for African Americans is acknowledging their lack of self-determination, much as alcoholics must acknowledge their condition before they can begin to address it. He invoked the quote famously attributed to Harriet Tubman:
“I freed a thousand slaves,” Tubman reportedly said in response to a reporter’s question, “I could have freed a thousand more if I could’ve only convinced them they were slaves.”
Jon Jeter is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, who has also served stints at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Washington Post, among others.