Facing the Hard Rock of Flint

As H.L. Mencken opined: "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

The polluted water in Flint, Mich., becomes the latest entry in this largely unproductive use of discourse in pursuit of a solution.

Flint's water crisis is an epic display of dehumanization that serves as a national embarrassment. The mere thought that any municipality would allow such degrading circumstances to exist should be abhorrent to the collective soul.

Underlying this water crisis are the opposing polarities that seek to dominate the discussion. These divergent viewpoints, operating largely on emotion and oversimplification, are unwitting allies working in tandem to obfuscate reality.

Given Flint's demographics (56 percent African American and roughly 44 percent living in poverty) it becomes predictable that charges of racism, specifically environmental racism, would be levied to understand the genesis of the crisis.

What about the 37 percent of white residents who live in Flint? Are they merely the collateral damage because the line of demarcation of African-American population justifies racist behavior?

There is a direct line that links environmental decisions with political power: Those without political clout are invariably at the mercy those in a position to make such decisions.

Flint hardly reflects a political juggernaut. Environmental decisions that would be nonstarters in more affluent communities find a place to nestle in Flint. Driven by the need to save money, Flint discontinued its relationship with Detroit's water system, which had Lake Huron as its source. Flint's emergency manager, Darnell Earley, supported the cost-saving change. Earley, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, is African American.

Here is where the other side seeks to prove unequivocally that racism was not involved. How can it be racist if an African American led the cost-cutting measure to switch to a water source (the Flint River) that was a repository for pollutants?

But this line of thinking also fails because it is looking at the individual and not at the system. Politics is an amoral enterprise that is often times more immoral than any individual is moral. It operates in its own interests, which invariably are the interest of those with the most influence.

Anyone who participates in that amoral paradigm, regardless of color, is vulnerable to becoming an advocate for the structural or institutional racism that is far more insidious in the 21st century.

While much of the conversation around Flint centers on race, we might also examine the role "rankism" plays into this conundrum.

Rankism, a term coined by a former president of Oberlin College, Robert Fuller, in his book "Somebodies and Nobodies," is an abusive, discriminatory or exploitative behavior toward people who have less power.

Think of racism as the outcome and rankism representing the journey. The journey in this case is as important as the outcome. Alleviating the outcome with addressing the journey increases the possibility of a repeat performance.

Rankism underlies many of the social ills of society, such as racism, sexism and homophobia, but it is also based on an abuse of power inherent to one holding a superior rank in life. It is, in my view, the principal source of human-created indignity.

Through the lens of rankism, it becomes understandable why the complaints in May 2014 by Flint resident Bethany Hazard of a murky, foamy water coming from her taps went nowhere. She was told instead that Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) analysis of the water met with state standards.

In August 2014, the same water that Bethany complained about three months earlier was found to have unacceptably high levels of E.coli bacteria. A year later, according to a piece in The New Yorker written by Amy Davidson, a DEQ spokesperson, Brad Wurfel, admitted the staff had "made a mistake" and followed the wrong protocol.

Poverty, lack of political power and rank contribute as much as, if not more than, race. Addressing rankism requires far more than the 24-hour issue de jour bandwidth we normally allot.

Rankism makes the ludicrous decisions in Flint plausible. It is difficult to believe that a similar process would have been used had the complaint come from a more affluent area.

But it didn't come from another area. It came from Flint -- the place where those in power have the luxury of using a subjective process when it comes to affirming one's humanity.