As the news of the Flint Water Crisis unfolds, I can’t help thinking about when Kanye West looked into the camera during a Hurricane Katrina telethon 11 years ago and said, “President Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Except, when I see the news about Flint, Michigan and their water poisoned with lead by those entrusted to make it safe to drink, what I keep thinking is, America doesn’t care about black people.
Sadly, as we prepare to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, this hardly feels like news. Black Lives Matter has made it impossible to turn our backs on the Trayvon Martins and Tamir Rices. #SayHerName reminds us of Sandra Bland. When you add poisoned water that a company has the audacity to charge for — and shut-off notices to those who don’t pay — it feels like there’s no hope for America.
So much for the dream.
It’s a story as old as America. People of color, particularly women, are disproportionately effected by poverty. They are also more likely to be paid less for the same work as white men, have less access to quality education (which would help them get higher paying jobs), and so on. Now Flint is selling them water that is poisoned with lead, the effects of which include reduced IQ and violent behavior. If you wanted to create a situation to trap poor people in an endless loop of poverty, you could hardly pick a better one outside of sharecropping.
Being forced to pay for something that isn’t usable is unethical. When that something is water, it’s downright evil. Access to clean water is a basic human right and it’s the law when it comes to the water company. That’s their job! The inequities built into the failing system in Flint is where institutionalized racism and the chasm of power between those with wealth and those in poverty become so obvious, we are all culpable. Our very witness to this degradation, is part of the problem.
Flint is America at our worst. The problem is obvious, but the solution is mired in politics. And the vast ambivalence to this human suffering — water is necessary to live! — is an example of the American belief that in some way, poor people deserve to be poor, deserve to be punished, deserve shame. And since poverty disproportionately effects people of color and women, the implication is that non-white, non-male people are worth less.
I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot lately, as I worked on my cover story for Vegas Seven (out now) about North Las Vegas, a city once compared to East St. Louis by Hunter S. Thompson. The city was started by a libertarian cowboy type, Thomas L. Williams, who bought 140 acres of desert north of Las Vegas so he could have a town with only one rule: No blacks allowed. Seriously. Later, when the city incorporated in 1946, their first mayor was indicted, twice, for murdering two people — on two separate occasions — in his own home. Perhaps that was the universe’s way of foreshadowing, as the the two most recent mayors have each had major scandals. Meanwhile, North Las Vegas, a city with a high minority population, high rate of poverty, one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, and municipal junk bond status, is just inches away from the state taking over.
Maybe Thompson was right:
North Las Vegas is where you go when you’ve fucked up once too often on the Strip, and when you’re not even welcome in the cut-rate Downtown places around Casino Center.
This is Nevada’s answer to East St. Louis—a slum and a graveyard, last stop before permanent exile to Ely or Winnemucca. North Las Vegas is where you go if you’re a hooker turning 40 and the syndicate men on the Strip decide you’re no longer much good for business out there with the high rollers …
In a town that is known for being the other side of the tracks from Sin City, maybe there was never any hope for North Las Vegas. In the past two years North Las Vegas has lost a Food 4 Less, Fresh & Easy, a Target, and now a Walmart is scheduled to close. This is how food deserts happen. Poor communities lose grocery stores and access to fresh food becomes harder to access because people have to travel greater distances. This is hardly new for North Las Vegas. I remember covering this issue at CityLife 12 years ago and people complaining of this issue when I worked at the Review Journal complex 16 years ago.
Now electric car company Faraday Future and Elon Musk’s Hyperloop are moving to “North Town.” The question is, can we really rely on private companies to save cities as economically depressed and chronically troubled as North Las Vegas … or Flint or even East St. Louis? That’s an awfully big bandaid for a problem that stems from something deeper than just a lack of jobs.
When it comes to our poorest communities, it seems like all we have are questions. In the meantime, at least North Las Vegans have safe drinking water. Because we just have to look at Flint, Michigan to see how much worse it could be; or to the folks who can still light their tap water on fire in West Virginia; or the Native American reservations without running water. This is 2016 and we’re still talking about getting clean, running water to all Americans!
America is going to have to start caring about the terrible injustices happening on the backs of its poor before anything changes for the better. We have to not only be brave enough to ask the right questions, but stick around to seek the answers. A telethon can’t do that. I don’t know if a car company can do that, either. But I do think Kanye was on to something. To address the inequities in our communities, we are going to have to care.