"the president cynically leveraged his blackness to obscure the fact that he was refusing to go after the guilty parties, while proposing no measures to ensure it didn't happen again."
President Obama's self-described “stunt”, chugging a glass of Flint water, assuring reidents of its safety, and claiming he might have ingested lead himself as a child were a deeply cynical deployment of his blackness to divert attention from federal responsibility for the mass poisonings and coverups.
“When I was five, six, seven,” the First Black President told an audience in Flint MI last week, “a lot of homes still had lead paint in them. I might have ingested some lead paint when I was two or three years old...” President Obama spoke those words just after chugging a glass of filtered Flint water, and just before assuring residents that a little lead in their children's bodies was less of a life obstacle than some might think. Sure, get your kids tested. But if possible childhood lead poisoning didn't stop baby Barack, he seemed to tell his listeners, why should it stop your child, your family from success? The president admonished locals and others not to point fingers, specifically not at Michigan governor Rick Snyder, who the president said was working with the feds to remedy the situation.
The president's act was tailor made for Flint, a black Michigan city only an hour north of Detroit, and aimed at African Americans around the country. It was quite a performance, reminiscent of his quip after the exoneration of the vigilante murderer of Trayvon Martin in Florida, when Obama observed that he “might have been” Trayvon 35 years go.
In both cases the president cynically leveraged his blackness to obscure the fact that he was refusing to go after the guilty parties, while proposing no measures to ensure it didn't happen again.
By the time President Obama dropped in on Flint, months after the deliberate poisoning of 100,000 people became national news, Democratic presidential candidates Clinton and Sanders had already come and gone. Congressional Democrats, led by members of the Congressional Black Caucus had staged their own denounce-a-Republican hearing in DC. For all of them, and for their allies in the corporate media, the mass poisonings were a unique case of evil Republicans whose ideology of privatization, small government and white supremacy empowered them to poison a mostly black city of 100,000. It's a simple and compelling story for this presidential campaign year, one that lets Democratic party activists keep the party's base voters aroused with demands to indict Governor Snyder and his minions.
That's their story. But it's not the real story.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency, as Black Agenda Report's Dr. Marsha Coleman Abedayo, a former EPA official and whistleblower has repeatedly pointed out, has always possesed the legal power under the Nixon era Clean Water Act to seize the water systems of Flint and dozens of other cities around the country which are known to be poisoning local residents, arrest the parties responsible, and operate those systems itself. But although regional EPA officials were fully aware of the Flint situation months before it became public, they chose not to act. The EPA is part of the executive branch of government, under the president and charged with enforcing existing laws.
First, Obama's regional and national EPA officials didn't decline to protect Flint's citizens by seizing the water works because they feared Republican opposition. Congressional Republicans simply don't have the power to stop the executive branch from enforcing a law already on the books. Then the White House and top EPA officials chose not to punish the EPA officials whose failure to act prolonged the poisonings.
Instead, the White House preferred to score cheap election year points against Republicans for the same privatizing acts that Democrats carry out all over the map. The Obama administration's Race To The Top program used billions of federal stimulus dollars to privatize thousands of public schools across the country. The Obama administration has likely privatized more public schools than any other president has ever built. The discredited notion of running schools and government agencies like businesses belongs to Democrats every bit as much as it does Republicans.
The last president named Clinton introduced what was called the “Reinventing Government” initiative, compelling state and local governments to begin privatizing dozens of types of government services.
The infrastructure projects of local governments everywhere in the US aren't funded by taxing the one percent, but instead by borrowing from the billionaires via bond issues that scoop up the taxes paid by poor people to repay bondholders at rates that street level loan sharks would envy. When the local tax revenues are insufficient to keep up the payments, local governments are turned into collection agencies, with emergency managers like those in Flint and Detroit appointed to cut services and pay the bondholders on time. In the more extreme cases, local governments are forced to sell off public land and other assets at pennies on the dollar to well connected investors.
The root of the crisis in Flint isn't racist Republicans or devious Democrats. It's a property of present day capitalism. The system does work, this is how it works, and both parties are committed to keeping it that way. This matrix of borrowing from the billionaires instead of taxing them, then turning local governments into collection agencies to repay the loans out of poor people's taxes is what brought us the mass poisonings in Flint. Democrats bear just as much responsibility for it as Republicans. But while the Democratic party's main funders are on Wall Street, its base voters are in places like Flint and Detroit.
So while Republicans can simply blame and scorn the citizens of Detroit and Flint, Democrats need a president who can skillfully deploy his black identity on demand to craft soothing, seemingly uplifting messages to the robbed and the poisoned. Democrats need to blame the Republicans, or nobody, and to keep the eyes and energies of capital's victims focused somewhere else.
These are the last few months of the Obama era. Without a Barack Obama to deliver these messages to the Democratic party's base voters, without the figure of the first black president to divert attention away from bipartisan complicity in the poisonings, the coverups and the machinations which led to it all, Flint would be a very different story.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and co-chair of the GA Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA and can be reached via email at [email protected].