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WSU Prof Responds to CapCon Article On His Study: Readers Deserve Better

Professor argues 'structural racism' responsible for Flint water crisis

The following response was submitted by Wayne State University Professor Peter Hammer about an Aug. 10 Michigan Capitol Confidential article on a study he authored attributing the Flint water crisis to "structural racism."

Tom Gantert’s article “WSU Prof's Report Blaming Flint Decline on 'Structural Racism' Used Bad Data,” fails to engage the main claims in the report or to understand the context in which the cited data was used.

The report is entitled "The Flint Water Crisis, KWA and Strategic-Structural Racism." Pertaining to structural racism and municipal distress, the main claim is:

Emergency Management can be a cruel and misguided tool. Flint was in municipal distress as a consequence of decades of structural racism, deindustrialization, white flight, economic deprivation and isolation. Rather than addressing these root issues, Emergency Management displaced democratic institutions and further marginalized citizen participation and the role of civil society. In addition, Emergency Managers imposed progressive budget cuts, weakening core city services and turning Flint into one of the latest “minimal cities.” A city made vulnerable as a result of structural racism was made even more vulnerable through Emergency Management and fiscal austerity. (11)

Ironically, most of Gantert’s analysis showing a fundamental collapse of all of Flint’s revenue sources confirms, rather than rejects the truth of this contention.

Instead of seeing the forest for the trees, Gantert focuses on a single estimate of state revenue sharing in Flint in fiscal year 2012. He characterizes the data from a study by Eric Scorsone and Nicolette Bateson as “obsolete” and “speculative.”  If Mr. Gantert had actually engaged “The Flint Water Crisis” he would understand the rationale for using Scorsone and Bateson’s September 2011 analysis in “Long-Term Crisis and Systemic Failure: Taking the Fiscal Stress of American Cities Seriously: Case Study: City of Flint.”

“The Flint Water Crisis” assesses the real time decision-making of Emergency Mangers and Treasury officials in Flint at the time and in the context of when decisions relating to KWA were being made.

The Scorsone & Bateson Report was published in the midst of the state’s assessment of Flint’s alleged financial emergency and only weeks before the appointment of Flint’s first Emergency Manager – Michael Brown. Contemporary actors in the Governor’s office, at Treasury and the various Emergency Managers can be charged with an awareness of its contents. The Report calls into serious question the basic assumptions of the Emergency Management policy as applied to Flint, even if one accepts the conservative economic precepts embedded in Emergency Management’s internal set of information and beliefs. (4)

In 2011, Scorsone and Bateson necessarily made “estimates” of 2012 state revenue sharing, but that is far removed from the main point of how and why the study was being used in “The Flint Water Crisis.”

The primary conclusion of the Scorsone and Bateson study and the reason that it is still relevant in assessing structural racism in Flint is its conclusion that Flint’s financial problems were largely structural in nature and beyond the control of either a sitting mayor or an Emergency Manager.

“Ultimately, however, if cities with chronic fiscal stress are suffering from structural challenges beyond their control, improved management will only be able to cure a limited number of problems.” [Scorsone & Bateson] state in their Executive Summary: “While the city can do some things to manage its financial stress, the revenue structure does not provide a means to solve the fiscal stress.  Long-term problems will require long-term solutions at both the state and local level.” In this environment, imposing cuts on top of cuts actually threatens the economic viability of the entire system. “City services and infrastructure maintenance have suffered. Attracting and retaining taxpayers is dependent on providing reliable service and high value for the high rate of taxes paid.”

One cannot destroy a village in order to save it.  Just a few weeks after the [Scorsone & Bateson] Report was published, Michael Brown was appointed Flint’s first Emergency Manager. It is fair to charge him and the other Emergency Managers with knowledge of the contents of this Report and to judge them in terms of whether and how they addressed Flint’s underlying structural challenges.

The Scorsone and Bateson study was used to highlight the particular historical, political and economic context in which decisions relating to KWA were made. Gantert’s failure to appreciate this fact suggests a fundamental failure to engage and understand the central claims in “The Flint Water Crisis.”  The readers of this publication deserve better.

~ Peter Hammer, professor at Wayne State University Law School.