The members of the Flint City Wide Choir had a sonorous but rusty timbre to their voices when they sang the national anthem before Sunday’s Democratic debate at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus, in advance of Tuesday’s primary in the state. Seeing that choir sing reminded me of the New Orleans we’d see on television in the months and years following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina — yet another instance of a willfully negligent government failing black people. Then, you’d see and hear, intermixed with the images of black suffering and devastation, the performances of black New Orleanians: the singing of Louis Armstrong; the prideful resistance of grief manifest in a second line parade. Like that Flint choir, those things were part of that city before and since. But with the spotlight of tragedy comes the need for narrative. And what narrative, especially about black people in America, survives without spectacle?
Like the choir, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sounded gravelly when they took the stage Sunday night, as if they were fighting off colds. Perhaps it was simply all the talking commensurate with a primary campaign that, though still early on the voting calendar, has been underway for nearly a year. And even as I watched the two bring unprecedented national coverage to Flint, I worried that, in the years to come, it might take the equivalent of a Spike Lee documentary, or the sight of Beyoncé on the top of a flooded cop car, to put the town back in the national limelight. That might be tough, too, since in Flint you don’t even see Katrina’s winds, wreckage, and drowned bodies. Lead poisoning is a quieter crisis, one that worms its way through communities over the course of generations.
Sunday’s debate, pushed for by the Clinton campaign weeks ago as they were devoting campaign resources to the region, may mark a tipping point of sorts — for the primary itself, and the nation’s focus on the state government–induced water contamination catastrophe. It’s very possible, even likely, that Sunday’s debate marked the apex of the collective American attention to a problem that is still growing more urgent by the day.
You could see it happening during the discussion itself, which rightfully began with a Flint resident, public housing manager Mikki Wade, asking, “If elected president, what course will you take to regain my trust in government?” This is a big question coming from a black woman in America, let alone one in a community this stricken by the effects of structural racism; Flint’s population is mostly black, and residents who aren’t black are suffering for living near those who are.
This is no coincidence, even if Michigan’s Republican government didn’t exactly sit in a smoke-filled room to plot the poisoning of Flint. Systemic inequities, after all, can widen due to neglect just as much as intent. The state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, still fails to grasp this; he tried his best Sunday to convince us by tweeting during the debate that the source of the contamination — his emergency managers switching Flint’s water source to a corrosive river — wasn’t part of an attempt to save money. But people won’t get less inconvenienced, or less sick, because Snyder and the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t mean for this to happen. I get why Wade and many other Flint residents are worried not just about the contamination but also about their futures at the hands of a government that still doesn’t understand what matters most.
The candidates responded to Wade’s question with solid promises: Clinton spoke of boosting economic development in the region; Sanders, of having the Center for Disease Control test every Flint resident for lead poisoning. But the discussion was soon sidetracked by a focus on feelings.
Emotions are understandably frayed in a moment like this, but they must not obscure the urgency of strategizing for results. Flint, thanks in part to this Democratic primary and events like CNN’s debate, is now a national issue (if not a priority). But there is still so much to be done, and so much need for Snyder and those in his administration to act — to say nothing of the president, and others in the federal government who also failed Flint. For anything to happen, pressure needs to be maintained.
That desperate need for concrete steps is why it felt odd to see the Flint portion of the debate, after Wade’s question, turn to the fantastical. A resident asked the candidates to make a politically impossible promise: Within her or his first 100 days in office, “make it a requirement that all public water systems must remove all lead service lines throughout the entire United States,” as well as notify every resident of which lines are hazardous. Anchor Don Lemon wasted the first of his many inconsequential questions that evening trying to provoke Clinton and Sanders into saying that someone needs to go to jail for the Flint contamination, when he had to know neither would play judge on a debate stage. While surely cathartic for the hometown audience and others concerned about Flint, CNN’s focus on the bare bones of policy was too short-lived.
Before an inquiry about jobs in Flint sidetracked the discussion, the candidates did field an important question from Bryn Mickle, the editor of the Flint Journal. Mickle asked whether they were using Flint’s contamination as a political opportunity. Despite their professed good intentions, I’d have much preferred both candidates to tell Mickle “yes,” and for moderator Anderson Cooper to chime in and admit that CNN was using it for a ratings boost. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; neither candidate has yet been elected to the office they’re seeking, so they can’t take executive action or sign bills to help the region. Sunday night’s debate represented, in a way, the most they can do right now: Get cameras to Flint.
But Sanders nailed his answer anyway when he said, “I think the fear, and the legitimate fear of the people of Flint, is that a certain point, the TV cameras and CNN will disappear. And people are going to be left struggling in order to live in a safe and healthy community.”
This fear will manifest even more clearly after Clinton, in all likelihood, defeats Sanders. Clinton made a firm promise Sunday night to continue prioritizing Flint during her administration — but the inception of that promise, should she win, is 10 months away. Before that, we’ll endure a general-election campaign during which she’ll have to fend off Donald Trump’s sexist barbarism and bombast while she tries to get a word out. Sure, Michigan will be an election battleground, and Clinton’s rhetoric about Flint may help her win the state. But I doubt there will be another debate in Flint, let alone one that significantly addresses the city’s specific issues or the broader lead-contamination problem affecting smaller communities throughout the South and major metropolises, such as my native Cleveland, alike.
In fact, barring another Ferguson or Baltimore, I doubt that any of the networks leading these debates will be able to address racial-justice issues more astutely than CNN did on Sunday night, either during the ultimately disappointing Flint portion of the debate or during Lemon’s asinine series of race questions that came later. We’ll see more Lemon-style questioning (“What racial blind spots do you have?”) than the kind we actually need: deeper, probing questions about policy that can continue chipping away at structural racism. The lack of a black Democratic candidate in this campaign — who might have been able to offer at least a three-dimensional representation of an African-American experience — makes it even more likely that blackness will continue to been seen primarily through the lens of misery, poverty, and death on the 2016 campaign stage.
While we certainly can’t hope for whomever the Republicans nominate to give a damn about Flint, Sunday’s debate gave me pause as to whether Clinton or Sanders will be able to bring the catastrophe into a larger context. Climate change wasn’t mentioned during the Flint section; only after a student asked about fracking did Sanders address it. And on the heels of a week when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a major abortion case, neither candidate thought to highlight why what happened in Flint is also a reproductive justice issue.
The conversation spurred by Flint’s suffering has so much further to go, and politicians have a lot more to do to stem its residents’ hardship. As Jelani Cobb expresses concern in the New Yorker about the black liberation movement's limelight lessening at the end of the Obama era, so too do I worry that the same may happen to Flint during this presidential campaign. It’ll be a shame if candidates and media alike conclude that getting a debate staged in Flint means that we’ve actually accomplished something.