My father is one of the most hardworking people I know. He works as a university administrator in the provost’s office of the school he taught at for nearly two decades. He served as Chair of the Faculty Senate with no additional pay prior to accepting that position. He maintained his duties in the provost’s office while also teaching an honor’s course this past academic year, and he now hosts a weekly music program on KRFP Radio Free Moscow in the town ten miles to the east. He still reserves time for extra projects and goals such as building models and he never once missed a sports game or special occasion of mine or my younger brother’s while we were growing up.
He once told me about his upbringing and how it contributed to his work ethic. Growing up in Flint, Michigan, his own father worked at the automotive assembly plants from early morning to mid-afternoon whereupon he would travel straight to his bulldozer to run his independent bulldozing business until it grew dark. This was the philosophy of blue collar Michigan in the mid-20th century: you worked until the job was done and until it was done well. How bloody your hands were or how much your body was screaming at you to take a rest were not acceptable metrics. My father admits that he doesn’t believe he works all that hard, and it’s easy to understand why he would think that when my grandfather’s life is the standard.
He credits these blue-collar roots as owing to his success in the university world. I credit them to my own success as well, as we were raised on a working-class mentality even though we were not a working-class household. Despite these benefits, those roots carry a hidden burden with them: the full comprehension of the decline of the American Rust Belt.
I had the chance to visit Flint early in the month of May. It was my first time visiting the town in ten years and my first visit equipped with the chops of my college political awakening. Though enjoyable and important for me on a personal and familial level, it will remain one of the most sobering experiences of my life.
Visits to Flint were common for my family during my childhood. The city carries a tremendous legacy for my bloodline, one with deep connections to American labor resistance. Some of my great grandparents participated in the famous Flint sit down strike that created the domestic auto workers unions in the United States. Almost all my parents’ extended family worked in the factories or supported the infrastructure in one way or another. Most of the family still lives in Michigan with a large chunk of that majority residing in or around the Flint area.
When the Flint water crisis emerged as an international headline, the whole scenario first seemed surreal to me. The city of my family history was suddenly vaulted into worldwide infamy. It brought up conversations about the shattered Midwest economy in the middle of a presidential election in which this topic became the cornerstone issue. Donald Trump capitalized on the anger and resentment of the forgotten population of laborers to win crucial states in the general election and brought the Democratic Party’s lack of class consciousness into the bright spotlight. All this because of events in the town I would see every summer as a child.
Most Americans know the story of the Rust Belt’s death, but witnessing the aftermath firsthand brings another level of understanding I was not fully prepared to absorb.
Before continuing, it needs to be noted that there are good developments occurring in Flint these days. Certain neighborhoods were spared the horror of lead-infused water due to copper piping being used in their houses. My mother’s stepmother resides in one such neighborhood. Downtown Flint sees economic growth every year as new businesses appear in storefronts abandoned decades ago. The Flint Farmer’s Market, which I had the pleasure of visiting, is a thriving business community of locally owned and operated vendors dealing in food, art, jewelry, and many other products and it is expanding its base at an incredible rate. There are several positives to identify in 2010s Flint, and they need to be acknowledged in any assessment of the city.
Even with these in mind, the harsh realities remain. Derelict houses line the streets with no sign of repair taking place. The same is true for storefronts outside the downtown region. These are not relegated to a single neighborhood or even a few; driving more than a single minute without encountering one is impossible. Signs of poverty and poor neighborhood health, a measure in public health characterized by a variety of factors such as church presence and quality of architecture, can be found in every district. Flint unemployment sits at about 9% in 2017, above the overall Michigan rate of 5%. A statistic offered by my grandmother tells the story succinctly: More than 300,000 people worked in the factories during the city’s prime. That is just factory workers; their families and all non-factory affiliates such as medical professionals would comprise several thousand more. In 2017, Flint’s total population rests below 100,000 and continues to shrink every year. The pangs of nostalgia for this heyday hang in the air like summer humidity even for somebody who did not experience my childhood there. I cannot begin to imagine the heartbreak of seeing the city’s decrepit state for my father and others whose identities are rooted in this place and who understand the full context of what this city’s strength once was.
Dwarfing all these observations is the ongoing water crisis. The story itself has only been in wider public consciousness for just over a year, but the public health and infrastructure impacts stretch as far back as 2014 (The Detroit Free Press crafted an excellent timeline of the events that can be accessed for newcomers to the story). Though the crisis may not receive the same magnitude of coverage in the corporate media sphere as it once did, it is far from being resolved.
Construction of new pipes is finally underway but most residents cannot expect to see repairs completed on their homes for months, and the city leadership now finds itself embroiled in a lawsuit from the state of Michigan itself.
These people are suffering and they have been suffering for a long time. Nobody in the political sphere even acknowledged their plight for years. No proposals for how to alleviate the unemployment rate or improve the infrastructure of the crumbling cities ever surfaces despite the ample opportunities to tackle the problem.
Solar power is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States. Take a guy from Flint whose entire career was wiring dashboards for cars and hand him a manual for how to wire a solar panel. An entire workforce is waiting in the Rust Belt to build this infrastructure. The fact that alternative energy is widely thought of as a “left-wing” idea will have no influence whatsoever over their decision to take these jobs. Instead we hear talk of “retraining”, a term with profound classism embedded in its usage that suggests working class people are stupid and cannot acquire other skills. It took independent media outlets like The Young Turks to finally break the water crisis story at the national level. Even so-called “progressive” outlets like MSNBC ignored it until they were forced to acknowledge it due to mounting public pressure.
It is not difficult to understand how someone like Donald Trump, as fraudulent as he appeared to most of us, could appeal to the deep pain this region continues to battle.
Yet, as I left Flint with this full comprehension of daily life there, my primary anger was not towards President Trump for exploiting this pain. Instead, my mind became occupied with the narratives I see and hear in my own progressive circles. The ones that proclaim these voters to be “stupid” or “uneducated” for being coerced into trusting a charlatan. The ones that talk down to such voters with the same classist rhetoric surrounding the aforementioned “retraining” discussions. The ones that ask not the question of how best to help these people and bring them to our side so they never fall for this charade again but rather the question of if these people being poisoned by their own water supply deserve to be helped at all.
We can disagree with these people’s decision to support Trump in the desperate hope of improving their lives (I certainly do and have written about it at length), but have we on the left reached a point where we no longer express empathy for the worst-off among us? Are we so devoid of class consciousness that we fail to see Trump’s election as the byproduct of the same systemic class oppression we work to destroy? I never thought I would see the day where we state with genuine intent no desire to help people subjected to the institutionalized violence we claim to oppose.
American socialists faced a similar situation a century ago when The Great Depression ravaged the lives of working and middle class Americans. They could have turned away from this suffering and degraded the victims of capitalist violence as heartless and racist as we do now. Instead, they chose to engage with these people and show them their true oppressors. Union membership soared and today we enjoy such benefits as Social Security and Medicare that are not dare touched even by the most right-wing among us, all because the leftists of the past had just a shred of empathy in their veins.
I’ve been back to the frontlines of Rust Belt America, and yes, it really is as bad as everyone says it is. If the left cannot understand this and find in our hearts the desire to help people genuinely suffering, then it is not a left I will call my own.
3 thoughts on “The Frontlines of Rust Belt America”
Excellent piece, especially the ending.
Very good article!! Proud of you!!
Thoughtful well written piece.