Flint Vehicle City sign entering downtown

The Flint Water Crisis demonstrates that the fight to ensure equity — for all races, nationalities, ethnicities and faiths — must continue to be a priority for every government agency and social action organization with the mission of ensuring civil liberties at its core.

By Dr. Agustin Arbulu

At a time when the faithful at Chabad of Poway faced unspeakable terror and a mosque in Michigan was the target of a bomb threat, we must recognize that the fight for all to be free from discrimination is not over.

News stories like these cause older stories like Flint to fade from the headlines. But it is important to recall that it was five years ago that government officials began to draw residents’ drinking water from the Flint River, beginning a chain of events we now know as the Flint Water Crisis.

Today, trauma continues to affect the daily lives of Flint residents. Too many, especially children, were harmed by the lead they drank and will face lifetimes of medical care and educational impediments. Adults also faced medical issues that almost certainly contributed to their early deaths.

But beyond the physical scars, an entire community awoke to the realization that their leaders had betrayed them and, as a result, they’ve lost their fundamental trust in government and society.

While the work of replacing water lines and ensuring every home has clean, safe water continues, we can’t lose sight of the work that remains to rebuild the relationship between people and their leaders at every level, and beyond the boundaries of Flint.

In February of 2017, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission released an exhaustive report, “The Flint Water Crisis: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint.”

The Commission, led by two co-chairs, one Muslim and one Jewish, concluded that systemic racism played a significant role in contributing to the public health crisis — a crisis that would never have been allowed to happen in communities like Birmingham or East Grand Rapids.

Decision makers at all levels failed the residents of Flint. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission and the Department of Civil Rights are no exception.

By not challenging our assumptions, by not asking ourselves the tough questions about how policies and decisions play out in different communities, especially communities primarily made up of people of color, those decisions and actions led to tragedy.

While it’s important to speak that truth, it is another to do something about it. That’s where Michigan’s civil rights leaders must continue to speak out and find ways to play a healing role in Flint and anywhere the civil rights of Michigan citizens are being abridged.

It’s not a new direction for the Jewish community. From its beginning, the Jewish community has been at the forefront of the civil rights movement.

Giants like Professor Harold Norris, who authored the central civil rights provisions of the 1964 Michigan constitution, and Burton Gordin, the first director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, were at the center of the struggle.

But Flint demonstrates that the fight to ensure equity — for all races, nationalities, ethnicities and faiths — must continue to be a priority for every government agency and social action organization with the mission of ensuring civil liberties at its core.

On this fifth anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies in the history of our state, let us recommit to the fight to secure social justice for all.

Dr. Agustin Arbulu is executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

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