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Sixty-two minutes. That’s how long it takes to get to Flint from my affluently ordinary suburb.
Flint is far away, a place no one from my town would drive to or through willingly. I’ve never even been there, the same way many of my metro-Detroit friends have never been to Detroit. The only story I have is my high school English teacher’s distressed retelling of how she got lost in its empty streets, late at night, crying to her Dad through the phone. The story focused on her. The wasting city, crimes, angels, and graffiti were only a backdrop. They would remain that way.
So when Flint appeared in little blue letters on Facebook’s “trending” section, my cursor sprinted over to see what was wrong. For something to have successfully bubbled out of Flint’s deep pit of problems meant disaster. But... water? My Great Lakes State had messed up water? The situation was so awfully absurd, I almost laughed about lead poisoning.
I suppose it isn’t surprising that my first reaction was inhuman. I had been trained to draw chasms of disregard for the “problem areas” to be “stay away”ed from all my life. Stories of murder, joblessness, gang violence, homelessness, and robbery were perfectly acceptable—as long as they came from the Eight Mile side. But water. This was something basic enough for us suburbians to actually care about. Maybe.
In the following weeks, it was strange, almost uncomfortable to witness a rupture of national concern over this 22-month old “Flint thing.” Nonprofits, Icelandic Water, Walmart, Hillary Clinton, senators, Cher, Eminem, Beyonce, and even Canada stepped in, lending their resources, energy, money, and publicity to bandage the cracks of what felt eerily like my area’s crisis. Despite how obviously criminal the situation was and my own clear relationship, I couldn’t process concern into my concept of Flint, the place normalcy tells me and my family to ignore. When I mentioned the situation to my dad over the phone, he gave a simple “Yes, it’s very awful over there,” and moved on. My mom didn’t even know.
But we are not unique. Abstraction is an expensive game that many suburban Detroiters have long played to prevent moral guilt from upsetting our unequal coexistences. Governor Richard D. Snyder, the overseer undoubtedly responsible for this prioritization of financial plans over basic safety, is simply one of us. The complaints from as early as May 2014 didn’t register because Flint’s existence didn’t register. Even the Environmental Protection Agency failed to comprehend the consequences of the high lead levels it found, letting us take our time with making amends while the poisonous water remained.
Come the next morning, I am once again eating my Annenberg breakfast empty-minded. Three weeks have passed since the media spike, and Flint is already in the far, dark corner of my mind. I smile when my friend sits down and tell her about how I had just lost my tenth water bottle (typical morning conversations). She lights up: “Come buy a water bottle from my club next week! We’re selling them to raise money for Flint, because water bottles, you know, water’s important.”
What? Flint? A long moment of logical silence ensued. Finally, the continued depravity of the situation registers, but it takes far too long, giving time for guilt’s cold hands to latch on. How? How is everyone everywhere so fixated on Flint’s lead-filled water when we—the people surrounding it—continue to make choices for Flint’s damnation? I have no trouble visualizing police brutality or Syrian refugees or lack of clean water in South Asia. Why then, am I unable to imagine a crisis that should be close and dear to me? What does this say about who I am? What does this mean for the suburbanites who don’t care?
I’ll buy one of the water bottles. But when I do, I don’t know if it will be in the name of Michigan or Harvard. When Flint is 11 hours away, I am far enough away to see the atrocity. I become irresponsible enough to want to correct their (our) mistake. And I will help because it is obvious that Flint’s neighbors won’t. I wish I could say this ability to heal, rally, fundraise, and care is something my neighbors uniquely lack. Yet it isn’t. Even here, on this liberal campus, we are comfortable with letting neighborhoods like Dorchester or Roxbury suffer high levels of poverty and crime. They are our Flint. They are our normal, our unfixable. And like any superior neighbor, we try "our best" before covering the complicated depths with shadows and cloaks.
The truth is, we have crises not because they are unavoidable, but because when we are too close and too influential, we are also too tired and entangled. We don’t want to recognize all the ways we are responsible. We see no point in devoting our busy lives to news so old and cold. In the micro, we see the nuances that make things impossible. So we ignore, and don’t let ourselves know just how wrong we are.
Elizabeth Y. Sun '19, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Canaday Hall.
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