"Nationwide, African American and Latino households are nearly twice as likely to lack complete plumbing than white households. Indigenous households are nineteen times more likely... Race, ethnicity, and language spoken have the strongest relationships to slow and inadequate enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act of any sociodemographic characteristics. Sadly, though, unless we experience these impacts of systemic racism directly, we can more easily ignore them than commit ourselves to the task of dismantling them.
"For many, the mass lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, marked a moment of awakening. Fifty-seven percent of Flint residents are African American, and forty percent live below the poverty line. Nearly one hundred thousand people, including nine thousand children, were exposed to dangerous amounts of lead when the water source was switched from the Detroit Water Authority to the Flint Water System. This crisis is the paradigmatic example of how systemic racism affects water supply.
"Flint fell under state control in 2011 because of its desperate economic conditions, leading to a 2014 decision by then-governor Rick Snyder to appoint an unelected emergency manager, Michael Brown. Both are white. In a cost-cutting move, Brown switched the city's water supply from Detroit's treated water to the untreated water of the Flint River. In treating the river water, the city failed to add a corrosion inhibitor, causing lead to leach from the city's pipes. For eighteen months, polluted, discolored, foul-smelling, and foul-tasting water that had traveled through aging, lead-leaching pipes was continuously directed into predominantly African American homes. Residents suffered rashes, hair loss, illness, and death from Legionnaire's disease, and the number of Flint's children with dangerously elevated blood lead levels doubled, even tripling in some neighborhoods.
"Further, the persistent US rejection of its obligation to the human right to water entrenches systemic racism. In 2020, We the People of Detroit, an organization committed to community research and water rights, released a report that identified a correlation between water shutoffs and increased cases of COVID-19. Discontinuing water service for inability to pay is incompatible with human rights, never more so than at a time when personal hygiene is necessary to avoiding contracting and spreading a deadly virus."
-Rabbi David Spinrad, "Digging Isaac's Third Well: Water and Systemic Racism," The Social Justice Torah Commentary, Ed. Rabbi Barry H. Block, New York: CCAR Press, 2021, pp. 36-37. (Note: The facts presented in these three paragraphs are fully documented with endnotes in the book.)
"Today, affordable access to water seems like a messianic dream, but working toward this fundamental right is within our capacity. Senator Kamala Harris and Dolores Huerta, cofounder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, offered concrete solutions to this problem:
"'We must [establish] safe water...[as] an engine of equitable economic growth. The United States needs a $1 trillion investment to meet our collective water infrastructure needs over the next 25 years, which would create millions of family-sustaining jobs. We should guarantee that front-line communities receive their fair share of investment, including those served by very small water systems and household drinking wells, as well as in our urban cities. We must pass the Water Justice Act, which will invest in communities that have burdened environmental injustices for generations. It would establish a new $10 billion water affordability program and make a $220 billion investment in clean and safe drinking water initiatives...Make no mistake, the fight for water justice is a fight for environmental justice. It is a fight for climate justice. It is a fight for racial justice.'
"While passage of legislation like the Water Justice Act would positively contribute to the fight for racial justice we should go further--all Americans must embrace safe and affordable water access as a basic human right. This will bring us closer to the prophetic vision foreseen by Isaiah, an age when water will flow unceasingly for all and 'joyfully shall [we] draw water from the fountain of salvation' (Isaiah 12:3)."
-Spinrad, pp. 38-39.