BAR Book Forum: Katrinell M. Davis’ “Tainted Tap”
Activists and community organizers should be inspired by the work of elders engaged in social change.
“Flint residents were forced to prove what water regulators already knew.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Katrinell M. Davis. Davis is Associate Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Florida State University. Her book is Tainted Tap: Flint's Journey from Crisis to Recovery.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Katrinell M. Davis: Our nation just concluded an era marred by an unsettling uptick in white supremacy and a clear disregard for black and brown lives. Although the leader of this movement has been sidelined, the dangerous sentiments that resurfaced still exist. Tainted Tap reminds us that we have more to fear than the Proud Boys and the various other white nationalist groups that have sprung up in recent years. Danger lurks in poor black and brown spaces—in places we never thought to look—and this includes the public drinking water and even the soil in many of these spaces. In addition to reminding us that our fight to acknowledge the value of black lives is a real urgency, Tainted Tap reminds readers that regular people play a pivotal role in the struggle for justice in modern times. I document in Tainted Tap how working-class black people in Flint never stood idly by while watching their rights get trampled. Flint residents always fought to make sure that their lives were respected. They weren’t always successful when advocating for their rights, but they have stayed informed and involved. Finally, what BAR readers will take from this snapshot of Flint’s journey is that problems created by the water crisis have not been resolved. It will likely be years before this city realizes a true recovery from the crisis and the other problems that plague it as a discarded city.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I want activists and community organizers to be inspired by the work of elders engaged in social change. I want them to consider the circumstances that these change agents fought, take note of their creative tactics, and realize that the situations we face today are not much better. I want them to note the disregard that the state put on display was not a fluke but a trend—and a threat to poor and black lives. It is also important to note that this disregard still is in effect. Water management professionals and the state got caught poisoning people in Flint; they didn’t have a come to Jesus moment and confess the error of their ways. They did not willingly come clean about their planned mismanagement and their failure to let residents know that their lives and properties were in danger. They got caught and then dragged their feet when called on the carpet to clean up the mess they created. We have to sit with the implications of this reality.
I also want them to know that Flint’s problems with water cost and quality issues did not begin in 2014. These environmental injustices and others have been present for some time for a variety of reasons that are outlined in the book. And I want them to know that Flint residents still show up even during the pandemic via Zoom to voice their concerns and make attempts to convince the state and local government to do what is necessary to make the city a safe and affordable place to live. That said, while many residents continue to speak about the lingering impact of the crisis and still expect folks to do something about the problems that plague their city, leaders and change agents must be reminded that real social justice takes a long time to manifest. Due to this reality, we lose people along the way because some are not positioned to stay the course. Eventually once dedicated allies will begin to disinvest from the struggle. Not because they condone the manipulation but really because they are dismayed by delayed justice.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope that this book helps people unlearn the lie that inequality or stark resource disparities across neighborhoods in cities like Flint are outcomes that are primarily shaped by the individuals residing in these poor spaces who suck at life and lack the willpower to get out of their own way—even if it means finding another place to live. This lie goes on to claim that whatever they get along the way is what they deserve because they lack the personal responsibility required to turn things around for themselves and their families. Instead, Tainted Tap will remind some and teach others that inequality is by design. Although it is easy for some to assume that people willfully sign up for their own demise and that they are just waiting to be rescued, this claim is far from true. When encountered with brown foul-smelling water, it was Flint residents who forced the issue; they did the work to assemble evidence of contamination and even had to sue to compel the State and other stakeholders to specify a start and conclusion of the pipeline replacement process. We would not even know that there was a crisis to confront if those residents did not publicize their water quality issues and demand accountability.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I thought that I was going to be an attorney until my junior year in college. This change in my career plans (from lawyer to sociologist) was inspired by my exposure to WEB DuBois’ body of work. I became obsessed with DuBois after being assigned his writings in courses about African American literature and history. I remember checking out all of the writings by DuBois I could get from the special collections library at Michigan State University (MSU). I still cannot justify my need to spend hours pouring over his Crisis editorials and correspondence with government leaders like Franklin Delano Roosevelt concerning the rights of black people. I do recall being impressed by how he used his talent and influence. Somehow and some way, I wanted to be like this black scholar-activist. Just before I completed my bachelor’s degree in a public policy college within MSU, I decided to become a sociologist, just like DuBois. As a resilience scholar who studies how marginalized people contend with difficult circumstances my work is also shaped by the activism and/or scholarship of Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, bell hooks, Phyllis Wallace, Malcolm X, Michelle Wallace, and Patricia Hill Collins. My late mother was my most influential intellectual guide because she was the first to give me a compass, provide advice regarding discernment and intention, and give me the space to grow and own my talents.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
In a new world, reimagined with the aid of this book, real people will begin to see that they play a pivotal role in social justice campaigns. In Tainted Tap, they will read about the tenacity of Flint residents who attended water justice protests during the winter and summer months for various years, held countless town meetings, repeatedly phoned water management representatives to share complaints, and wrote federal, state and local leaders—all to get their water quality issues addressed. Almost six years later, the water quality has improved throughout most of the city. But many people in this poor depopulated city don’t trust the water without a filter. And, truth be told, they have good reason to be concerned.
Flint residents were forced to prove what water regulators already knew. With help from outside experts, they had to collect water samples throughout the city to justify their concerns, while the water regulators who knew the water system had issues, continued to downplay complaints. Tainted Tap forces us to face the fact that existing regulatory structures are not accountable to the people that they are positioned to protect and serve. In addition, this book will encourage the people subject to public service mismanagement to do what is required to secure a seat at the table where pertinent decisions are made in their community.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.
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