Michigan Civil Rights Commission Report: Race and racism played roles in causing the Flint Water Crisis, and both blacks and whites are victims

Contact: Vicki Levengood 517-241-7978
Agency: Civil Rights

Click on the image of the Flint Water Report cover at the right to download a PDF of the full report.

To access more information on the Flint Water hearings click here

Flint Water Report cover


February 17, 2017

Flint — The Michigan Civil Rights Commission today released their report on their year-long investigation into the civil rights implications of the Flint water crisis. After conducting three public hearings and taking testimony from more than 150 residents, experts and government officials, the Commission determined that the actions resulting in the poisoning of the city’s water supply abridged the civil rights of Flint residents under state law.

“Policy makers, government leaders, and decision makers at many levels failed the residents of Flint,” said Agustin Arbulu, Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “By not challenging their assumptions, by not asking themselves the tough questions about how policy and decisions play out in different communities, especially communities primarily made up of people of color, those decisions and actions – or in some cases, lack of action – led to the tragedy taking place in Flint.”

The detailed report outlines the underlying issues that contributed to the crisis and the resulting violation of civil rights, pointing to historical and systemic structures and patterns dating back nearly a century that have at their foundation race and segregation of the Flint community. 

In their report, the Commission focused on these major issues:

  • The structures, institutions and systems that created Flint, including the history of segregated housing and education,

  • Environmental justice and the emergency manager law,

  • The role of implicit bias.

They concluded that a complex mix of historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias led to decisions, actions, and consequences in Flint would not have been allowed to happen in primarily white communities such as Birmingham, Ann Arbor, or East Grand Rapids.

“We strongly believe that the actions that led to the poisoning of Flint’s water and the slow response resulted in the abridgement of civil rights for the people of Flint,” said Arthur Horwitz, co-chair of the Commission during the time of the investigation.  “We are not suggesting that those making decisions related to this crisis were racists, or meant to treat Flint any differently because it is a community of color.  Rather, the response is the result of implicit bias and the history of systemic racism that was built into the foundation of Flint.”

The Commission outlined a list of recommendations for action that include:

  • Replacing or restructuring Michigan’s emergency manager law.

  • Developing a plan of action to provide environmental justice to all Michigan residents.

  • Developing a deeper understanding of the roles of structural racialization and implicit bias, and how they affect decision-making throughout all branches of state government, and provide training on implicit bias to the Governor’s Cabinet, Mission Flint, and the staff of all state departments including DHHS and DEQ.

“The lessons of Flint are profound,” said Horwitz. “While the exact situation and response that happened in Flint may never happen anywhere else, the factors that led to this crisis remain in place and will most certainly lead to other tragedies if we don’t take steps to remedy them. We hope this report is a step in that direction.”

The full report can be accessed here.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission was created by the Michigan Constitution to safeguard constitutional and legal guarantees against discrimination. The Commission is charged with investigating alleged discrimination against any person because of religion, race, color or national origin, sex, age, marital status, height, weight, arrest record, and physical and mental disability.