I drove into Flint during the early evening. Turning off the main highway we drove through neighborhoods that evidenced no human activity.
We reached a business area and saw plenty of sex shops, fast food chain establishments, and an occasional store. We could not find a decent restaurant until a Chinese restaurant appeared almost out of no where.
After eating we proceeded downtown seeking a hotel where the conference we were to attend was to be based. We saw no people; none. There was an occasional car, and one we did see had been pulled over by the police.
Flint has a population of about 124,000, according to the 2000 census, of which 53 percent are Black. It has a poverty rate of about 32 percent (at least as of 2005), and, as of September 2007, an unemployment rate of about 14.6 percent. In other words, the city is in trouble.
In fact, those stats were clearly illustrated in looking at a city that seemed to have been hit by a neutron bomb: buildings standing, but no people around.
Flint stands as a representation of the restructuring U.S. (and global) economy and the manner in which it is crushing so many of those who actually made the U.S. economy work in the first place. The auto plants that were once running 2-3 shifts, have in many cases closed or downsized, and there have not been comparable sources of employment for the workers who are now treated as useless (the polite word is "redundant").
One would think that we would hear more about this in the U.S. presidential campaign, but it seems to be drowned out by either motivational speeches; calls for experience; or near pointless quarreling — and that is only on the Democratic side!
The Republicans have nothing particularly innovative to say about the economy, and their calls for tax cuts are worn out. Yet the media has not focused on these issues as they relate to the candidates other than to mention that the economy is becoming more important for the elections. Well, there is a surprise!
The two top contenders, Sens. Obama and Clinton, have barely mentioned the crushing impact of the economy, a crushing impact that preceded the most recent collapse of the housing market and the proliferation of debt. The living standard for the average U.S. working person has been either stagnating or declining since the mid 1970s, kept afloat largely through increased credit (such as credit cards or home refinancing). For African Americans, it has been worse than the average. Given how urbanized we are as a people, we suffered disproportionately when industries, such as auto and steel, downsized, moved or closed outright (beginning in the 1970s), leaving places like devastated Flint, Mich. in their wake.
Flint, Mich. is not going to be saved by a "stimulus package" of a few hundred dollars per person. There needs to be a comprehensive plan for the city's development that will involve state and federal assistance. In other words, there will have to be a public commitment to rebuild the city and to ensure that Flint is more than a ghost town. This, however, runs against the mantra of privatization, so-called free markets, and small government that we have been bombarded with since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
A discussion of Flint, Mich. needs to happen during this campaign. There needs to be a discussion about the Flints around the country and the fact that a changing economy has a personal, human impact. Driving through Flint, all of the stats came together for me: this country is polarizing wealth, with the rich living in their guarded and gated communities, sending their children to private schools and living well. As for the rest of us, well, we are on the road to Flint, whether we are aware of it or not.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.