Photo courtesy of the Black Mesa Water Coalition
Does society organize its media response to issues by the race which is affected?
Flint, Michigan is suffering from an environmental disaster due to its water source being changed from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. This has led to contamination issues such as increased blood-lead levels in children and the possibility of an increase in cases of Legionnaires’ Disease.
The town of 124,943 is predominantly (53.3%) Black and is facing environmental racism; when policy or practices disadvantages communities based on race or class. In their article, The Racist Roots of Flint’s Water Crisis, Julia Craven and Tyler Tynes say, “A December 1966 EPA study showed that the water quality in Flint was poor decades before people were talking about lead pipes and poisoning.” Having known for over forty years that the Flint River was contaminated and didn’t have anti-corrosion agents in it, officials allowed the change to occur and ignored the possible effects it would have on Flint.
A similar contamination has plagued the Navajo Nation since 1979 when the Church Rock uranium mill had a dam breach.
The EPA’s site on the issue states “Today the mines are closed, but a legacy of uranium contamination remains, including over 500 abandoned uranium mines (AUMs) as well as homes and drinking water sources with elevated levels of radiation. Potential health effects include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.”
We aren’t here to presume which environmental disaster is the worst; that’s a separate debate entirely and one I feel would diverge from the following thought. Instead, we’re here to wonder why Flint has a large media response while the Navajo Nation’s plight is little-known and relegated to academic texts. The distinct differences in media attention towards the two communities shouldn’t be chalked up to the eras in which they occurred; there was mass media back in the 70s and the 24-hour news cycle came about with CNN in 1980.
Even the actual treatments of the disasters shouldn’t be used as a reason behind the variances since the Navajos’ land has been subject to uranium activity since 1944 and only began being heavily treated back in 2008. American society has structured a hierarchy, based on a racist determination of community value, in which the mainstream media will only provide the time of day to those most able to disrupt an everyday news cycle.
The mainstream media in the United States was created by White people; thus, the thoughts, intentions, and depictions portrayed in it dispense the White community’s culture both consciously and subconsciously. While these cases have improved since inception, providing better representation from separate demographics, the base Whiteness permeates through. Our mainstream media is in a place where White perspective is still the dominant view.
Since the way a society interacts and operates is built, there needs to be a history which constructed how the suggested hierarchy works. White settlers decimated the populations of Native Americans to the point where the once thriving Navajo Nation had just under 200,000 people as of the 2010 census. Due to the lowered population, the voices of the Navajo are restricted, there are less people to speak out for themselves and the mainstream culture has historically ignored any issues Native Americans deal with. This results in an enforced silence.
Black communities have larger populations (compared to Native American communities) which have had many victories both physically during revolts in the colonial era and politically in the Equal Rights Movement era along with many in-between and after. To put it bluntly, Black communities have been able to disrupt the White mainstream culture in a way in which Native American communities were not able to.
It is with these scenarios in mind that the media’s racial hierarchy begins to form. The media would intentionally give more attention to the Black community in the case of contamination since there would be a larger population seeking information along with a higher chance of the affected community to make it into a larger issue. Whether the media is seeking to appease specific communities or to bring attention to issues they feel affect more individuals, there is a sense that levels of importance have become associated with specific racial communities.
This isn’t a problem where a specific person can be shoved out the door of a newsroom and magically all will be right again. All races are placed into this situation because of the pervasive spine which mainstream media is held up by. This socially established hierarchy can only be deconstructed if we as a collective choose to acknowledge that more than one issue occurs at a time; the world is filled with problems which deserve our attention and there’s more than enough humans to give each issue its spotlight.