WSU prof relied on faulty data to blame conservatives for Flint lead crisis

A Wayne State University professor who blamed the Flint, Michigan water crisis on “structural racism” and cuts in state revenue apparently based his research on faulty data.

Law professor Peter Hammer underestimated state financial support of the distressed city by $5 million, leading him to erroneously conclude that a concerted effort to withhold state funding was responsible for the lead-tainted drinking water in Flint, Michigan Capitol Confidential reports.

In his original report, which was widely promulgated by media outlets in the state, Hammer had claimed that revenue-sharing payments fell from $20 million in 2006 to $7.9 million in 2012, but a recent audit of government records show that payments actually fell from $19.5 million to $13.1 million.

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More strikingly, Hammer’s research paper asserted that the Flint crisis was not accidental, but that “structural racism” was an underlying factor in many of the decisions precipitating the lead contamination, especially cuts in state funding.

“Flint is a complicated story where race plays on multiple dimensions,” he writes. “The entire Emergency Management regime and [G]overnor Snyder’s approach to municipal distress and fiscal austerity serves as a morality play about the dangers of structural racism and how conservative notions of knowledge-&-power can drive decisions leading to the poisoning of an entire City.”

Around 2014, Flint connected to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) and began drawing drinking water from the Flint river, which was tainted with lead. The switch to KWA from a Detroit water source was meant to save the greater Flint area $200 million over 25 years, according to NPR.

Hammer defended his findings, saying that he got his data from a 2011 Michigan State University study, though he conceded that the outdated MSU study only contained projections of the state funding Flint would receive in future years.

“Your data suggests a still significant decline, but of a smaller magnitude,” Hammer told Michigan Capitol Confidential. “The report I wrote examines the interaction of structural and strategic racism in the Flint crisis. I claim that structural racism, including the collapse of property and job markets, and non-structural causes, the reduction in revenue sharing, contributed to the financial crisis leading to Emergency Management.”

Hammer’s report makes the case that Michigan’s Republican governor and legislators reduced emergency water treatment funds in a way that left Flint, a majority-black and Democrat city, in the lurch, exacerbating difficulties created by the departure of manufacturing jobs and the related “white flight” of Caucasian residents over the last 50 years.

He also dismisses the opposing view that the city bears responsibility for not testing or treating its water supply, arguing that the decision to use unsafe water from the Flint river was made in the “shadow of the legacy of structural racism and the dictates of fiscal austerity” and the “financially distressed city had few alternatives.”

Hammer concludes that Flint was an easy target for conservative Michigan politicians, citing a law passed by the Republican legislature to appoint emergency managers to help balance municipal budgets. Although the measure was meant to address a growing problem within the state, Hammer maintains that it merely “privileged its conservative set of Emergency Manager policies...over competing visions,” which he presumably would have preferred.

“The problem is not a lack of knowledge,” Hammer writes. “The problem is the often willful blindness of people in positions of privilege and authority (Knowledge-&-Power) to the needs, perspectives, and interests of others, particularly when the ‘other’ is from a community that differs from their own in terms of race or class or ethnicity.”

Hammer elaborates that “the information and beliefs held by people in authority often reinforce that blindness and permit the unquestioned projection of policies and programs on others, even when it is clear that those policies are inappropriate or have harmful consequences,” further betraying his own political bias.

“We need a deeper awareness of the reality of multiple forms of racism at work in this country and how they interact to make better policy decisions moving forward,” Hammer concludes.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @RiersonNC