The Privileges of Power

On a power outage, Flint, and racial disparities in a pandemic

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The title of this week’s newsletter is both painfully obvious and a bad pun. Access to and control of people and resources—that is, power—is a form of privilege, perhaps the only form of privilege that ultimately matters. But on a more mundane note, regular, dependable access to electrical power is also a kind of privilege, one that most Americans usually take for granted.

I grew up in the country, where the power lines sag for long stretches between utility poles. A tree encased in ice glistens in the sun, a bit of natural misdirection that distracts admirers from its potential to wipe out an entire neighborhood’s power for almost a week. It’s hard to say how many days’-long power outages I actually experienced on my parents’ farm, but they figure prominently in my memories of childhood. For us kids, a power outage meant being cold and bored. For my parents, it meant not only anxiety about keeping us warm and fed, but also worry about whether the pigs or the cows would get out (no electric fence) and how we’d get water to the animals and humans who needed it (no power to run the water pump). 

I associate power outages with freak storms like the one that sent lightning balls skittering in front of my rental car the day of my grandfather’s funeral. I do not generally associate them with the kind of slow, steady rain that fell on Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. This gentle soaking knocked out a transformer at the end of my block. Something shorted, the utility pole caught on fire, and we lost power for close to 7 hours. This wasn’t so disruptive, in the grand scheme of things, but the several hours I spent reading and writing by candlelight did give me occasion to reflect on how rare the experience has become for me, a middle-class white lady living in one of the better-off parts of a major American city. I take the physical infrastructure that powers my privilege for granted.

The previous day, Saturday, was the sixth anniversary of state and local officials in Michigan switching the people of Flint over to a tainted water supply. Most of the pipes in Flint, a depopulated industrial city with high levels of poverty and a majority Black population, were made of lead. When the water department failed to correct for the acidic pH of the Flint River, lead flowed out of the pipes and onto residents’ skin and into their bodies. For six months, officials ignored residents’ complaints of rashes and foul odors. Now, six years later, the water is supposedly safe and the pipes are gradually being replaced, but many locals still rely on bottled water. They don’t trust the representatives of a system that lied to them in the past. Flint’s children, meanwhile, will continue to suffer the effects of the lead they drank in the summer of 2014 for years to come.

Since this is ostensibly a newsletter about science, here are two obligatory paragraphs gesturing toward some connections between my singed utility pole, Flint, and science policy. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about what the fiasco of the United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic means for US “leadership” in the sciences. In an article that would be hilarious were it not intended to be read as serious journalism, the New York Times reported that European scientists were experiencing “sadness” about the failure of American scientific leadership. I hate to break it to the NYT, but to the extent that the United States was previously a global leader in science, it wasn’t because of some sort of intrinsic American greatness that has now mysteriously waned, to Europeans’ everlasting regret. Rather, the United States once exercised the political will to invest its vast wealth in public goods, and now it does not. In the late twentieth century, those public goods came to include not only scientific research, but also a robust infrastructure that included public utilities and public health systems. The internet, the NIH, and the EPA all emerged from the brief moment in which there was political consensus to prioritize certain kinds of resources for certain kinds of people.

But never everyone. A meritocracy does not actually reward merit, but rather those with access to the various kinds of resources that the system chooses to reward. If we lack university presidents and Nobel Laureates who hail from Flint, it’s not because of anything inherent to the people of Flint, but rather because local, state, and federal leadership decided to stop (or never decided to start) investing in the people who live in low-income Black cities. And if, over the past fifty years, the United States has, on aggregate, dominated certain markers of scientific achievement, it’s not because of some sort of American exceptionalism. Instead, it’s that, for most of the pasty fifty years, in much of the country, most scientists in the United States could more reliably count on access to power—electrical or otherwise—than could scientists in other countries.

This post isn’t really about science, though. Over the past few weeks, we’re finally getting a clear sense of who’s sick and who’s dying from COVID-19. It’s not middle-class white people who can choose to self-isolate in spacious homes with reliable access to food, water, and high-speed internet. In any given city, it’s the people who are already vulnerable who are feeling the brunt of the disease. In Richmond, Virginia, a city that is 48 percent Black, every single person who has so far died of COVID-19 has been Black. In San Francisco, Latinos make up about 15 percent of the population, but more than a quarter of COVID-19 cases. Black people comprise about 30 percent of the population of Chicago but, as of April 5, approximately 70 percent of Chicago’s COVID-19 deaths. The list goes on and on.

The same historical forces that poisoned the people of Flint have put Black and Brown Americans at greater risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19. The pandemic is laying bare the consequences of environmental racism, “essential worker” policies, segregation, food deserts, hospital closures, mass incarceration, and other legacies of power structures in America. Make no mistake: Racism kills.

The currents of power that allow people of color to die at such alarming rates wrap around us, through us, into our homes, workplaces, and communities. I keep hearing people say that the pandemic will change us. I hope so. I hope that we channel all the rage and despair about these cruel, needless deaths into a new system of power that values life for everyone.

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Contribute data: COVID-Black: A Taskforce on Black Health and Data is a new initiative from Kim Gallon (Purdue University), Nishani Frazier (Miami University), and Faithe Day (Purdue University) that seeks to collect stories and statistics about Black health experiences, both during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information on how to contribute, start with the above link or click here.

Learn and act: COVID-19 is ripping through confined spaces, especially jails, detention centers, and prisons. COVID-19 Behind Bars is an attempt to track the scale of the epidemic through news articles and prisoner reports. On Twitter, search the #freethemall hashtag to learn about decarceration campaigns around the country. If you have the funds available, please consider donating to a local community bail fund—here’s a link to one in Philadelphia.

Speaking of investing in knowledge economies: I have not yet seen, but am eagerly anticipating, Alex Sayf Cummings’s new Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Idea of the Idea Economy, just out now from Columbia University Press. Use code CUP30 for 30 percent off!

A Logistical Note: As you may have gathered from last week’s post, an iron-clad writing commitment during a pandemic isn’t quite working for me right now. This week, it felt right, so I posted. Next time it doesn’t, I won’t. Newsletters will still go out on Tuesdays, but maybe not every week. Take care of yourselves and each other, folks. xoxo