Analysis Race

‘Water, Water Everywhere’: Racial Inequality and Reproductive Justice in Detroit

Cortney Kiyo Bouse

The withdrawal of public services in Detroit is typically framed as an unavoidable response to the city's declining tax base. Alternatively, we frame these violations as an active assault against communities of color and low-income families in the interest of white-controlled financial institutions.

Read more of our coverage on the Detroit water shutoffs here.

Every morning Kendra pushes her cart several blocks to a friend’s house, where the water has not yet been shut off. After filling various jugs and trash bins, she then makes the lengthy trip home, passing vacant lots and abandoned homes that now characterize many neighborhoods in Motown’s urban center.

When we first heard Kendra’s story, Elizabeth was transported back to Kasese District, a rural area in Western Uganda where she once worked as a maternal health fellow. She saw the never-ending parade of women carrying jerry cans heavy with water from the lakes to their thatch-roofed homes. Like Kendra, their daily journey was not an exercise in futility but, rather, an act of survival. Water is critical for their families’ hydration, cooking, and sanitation—just as it is for Kendra. Such a basic need is universal to the human race, after all.

In Detroit, stories like Kendra’s are far too common. And her story, like those of the women in Kasese, is typically isolated outside the historic and political contexts from which they spring. Instead of resourceful agents reacting to unjust living conditions, Detroit residents are labeled as “delinquent customers” who “opt not to” pay their water bills. But these are not irresponsible behaviors acted out by immoral individuals. They are the result of structural-level processes, which exist at the intersection of neoliberal capitalism, racialized exploitation, and sexism. Nevertheless, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) has continued to shut off water to low-income families instead of more powerful (and financially capable) account holders such as the State of Michigan or the Palmer Park Golf Club, whose outstanding debts swamp those of individual households. (On Monday, however, DWSD issued a temporary suspension of shutoffs for 15 days to give residents time to seek help in bringing their accounts current.) 

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Leaders in the reproductive justice movement have called for the centering of race and women of color’s lived experiences in order to achieve true reproductive freedom for all. Using this framework, we can explore why the water shutoffs in Detroit—one of the nation’s most racially segregated cities—should deeply concern reproductive justice advocates.

Historical and Sociopolitical Backdrop

At the turn of the 20th century, Europe’s colonization of East Africa was characterized by depletion of resources, exploitation of communities of color, and underinvestment in social infrastructure. With haunting similarity, we now stand witness to these same global, political-economic forces devastating urban centers across the United States. While certainly not an outlier (38 U.S. municipalities have filed for bankruptcy since January 2010), Detroit serves as a striking example of the threats to come—particularly for vulnerable groups such as women and children who are low-income and/or Black and/or Latino.

In Detroit, the cost of water is nearly twice the national average, and approximately half of the city’s customers owe outstanding balances on their water bills. But let’s situate this against a broader historical and sociopolitical backdrop. By 2011, half of Detroit’s working-age population was unemployed, and only 27 percent had full-time work. Nearly one in five Detroit residents were below the poverty line. Approximately three in five children were living in households headed by single mothers (see Rose Brewer’s article on the prison industrial complex). Moreover, these statistics are significantly worse for the city’s Black and Latino residents.

This scenario is one outgrowth of globalization, racial discrimination, and subsequent withdrawal of city services. Michigan’s auto industry has been in decline since the 1970s, following globalization of auto manufacturing and markets. As was typical in the Rust Belt, this economic shift toward deindustrialization was quickly succeeded by white flight from Detroit’s urban center. In turn, this led to rapid suburbanization of both population and employment opportunities in the greater metro area. Subsequently, Black families like Kendra’s now live in neighborhoods suffering from the increasing withdrawal of vital public services including police, emergency medics, fire fighters, and streetlights. Water shutoffs are simply the most recent violation they’ve faced.

We can follow threads of the exploitation of communities of color in both Kasese, Uganda, and Detroit, Michigan, which has the highest percentage of Black residents in the United States (84 percent). In both locales, populations of color have faced similarly devastating consequences from the inherently intertwined systems of capitalism and racism. For example, both have suffered diminished access to basic necessities like water. In contrast, both white colonialists and white suburbanites have reaped magnificent wealth from their control and exploitation of Black labor. The withdrawal of public services in Detroit is typically framed as an unavoidable response to the city’s declining tax base. Alternatively, we frame these violations as a deliberate assault against communities of color and low-income families in the interest of white-controlled financial institutions.

The Shutoffs and Reproductive Health and Autonomy

Such environmental and social stressors are likely to carry significant consequences for the health of racially and economically marginalized women and their children. For example, countless studies have documented how experiences of racism and poverty contribute to cumulative wear and tear on the body over the course of a person’s life. This increased “allostatic load” has been linked to poorer reproductive and health outcomes, including premature birth, low birth weight, and infant mortality.

But perhaps more importantly, water shutoffs parallel the pervasive and life-long assaults against personal autonomy endured by women, particularly those from marginalized communities. As the United Nations recently declared, “Disconnection of water services [in Detroit] because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”

We would argue that these water shutoffs also violate the human right to reproductive freedom. From the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, UN delegates defined reproductive health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.” This implies individuals must have “the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so.” More explicitly, it requires “the means to do so” such that couples have “the best chance of having a healthy infant.” Clearly, the DSWD’s water shutoffs for poor families are a violation of this international agreement.

Political pundits—who, notably, have access to potable water and are not from Detroit—are currently shaming low-income Detroiters affected by the water shutoffs. Reporters, analysts, and the public are questioning why Detroit residents spend their money on nonessential items instead of water. They suggest conditional requirements for service reactivation such as the monitoring of water consumption and financial expenses among poor families.

Such patronizing statements are not made about golf clubs.

Sadly, this infantilization is a familiar experience for Black women on public assistance, who are often accused of being “welfare queens” and “crack mothers.” But like the high-income DWSD account holders in Detroit, similar judgments are never made of large businesses that receive tax breaks, subsidies, and other forms of corporate welfare.

Like their financial decisions, the reproductive choices made by low-income Detroit residents are highly scrutinized. Generally, women are blamed for “irresponsible” reproductive outcomes, whether that is having children (if you are poor or non-white) or not having children (if you are affluent and white). More specifically, Black and Latina women who receive welfare, Medicaid, or other “entitlements” are painted as lazy, greedy, and neglectful mothers. They are accused of scamming the system and criticized for “not working” as though child-rearing and domestic labor is not “work.” Of course, this is old news: “feminine” work is seen as inferior to “masculine” work and is, therefore, not compensated equally, if at all.

In turn, low-income women are caught in a treacherous double bind. They are socialized and expected to perform the important but un- or underpaid reproductive labor of keeping children and home. Simultaneously, neoliberal “budget cuts” mean they are denied resources necessary for their families’ survival, including housing, food, and water. Together, the lack of economic compensation for reproductive labor combined with decreased welfare benefits makes it impossible for low-income mothers to keep up with the rising costs of living. Viable options are further eroded for families of color, who experience significant racial discrimination in access to both education and employment. How do we expect low-income women of color to mother under such conditions?

Some researchers, including Arline Geronimus, have examined traditional American ideology, which is highly critical of both Black and teen motherhood. They have found that Black women who bear children as teenagers experience better birth outcomes (for example, lower infant mortality) in contrast to white women whose risk is highest for poor birth outcomes during adolescence. This disparate health pattern (what Geronimus calls “weathering”) is the result of “premature aging” in Black women, who accumulate exposure to sexualized racism over their life course. Similarly, this “weathering” contributes to generalized premature mortality within Black communities, which diminishes women’s familial support for child-rearing as they age. In turn, Geronimus and others have suggested that the denigration of Black teen mothers overlooks structural constraints that require this adaptive practice. Similarly, the attribution of water “delinquency” to individuals’ irresponsible (even illegal) behavior is nothing short of victim-blaming.

The Way Forward

As urban planner Jamie Peck once proclaimed during a lecture for the Detroit School of Urban Studies, we cannot use capitalist tools to dismantle the crisis created by capitalism. Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is currently considering various bids to privatize the DWSD. But such privatization is likely to increase rates for Detroit residents and (like other forms of fiscal austerity) seeks to squeeze the last drops of life from a well that is already dry.

Instead, protesters and human rights activists have emphasized how investment in public services can lift residents out of desperation and increase their freedoms and capabilities. For example, the State of Kerala has significantly better health outcomes than other regions in India, although its income per capita is below the national average. Human and reproductive rights leaders, including Gita and Amartya Sen (who are not related but share the same last name), have attributed this anomaly to Kerala’s historic investment in social infrastructures that improve the agency of its residents. These include state support of education, health services, and women’s empowerment in addition to basic needs like food and water.

Short-sighted solutions disconnected from historical and sociopolitical contexts are likely to exacerbate suffering and inequality in Detroit.

If you are interested in donating your time, energy, or money to the activists and residents fighting for their human right to water, you can connect here for information about the Peoples Water Board.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Republican National Convention Edition

Ally Boguhn

The Trump family's RNC claims about crime and the presidential candidate's record on gender equality have kept fact-checkers busy.

Republicans came together in Cleveland this week to nominate Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention (RNC), generating days of cringe-inducing falsehoods and misleading statements on crime, the nominee’s positions on gender equality, and LGBTQ people.

Trump’s Acceptance Speech Blasted for Making False Claims on Crime

Trump accepted the Republican nomination in a Thursday night speech at the RNC that drew harsh criticism for many of its misleading and outright false talking points.

Numerous fact-checkers took Trump to task, calling out many of his claims for being “wrong,” and “inflated or misleading.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

 Among the most hotly contested of Trump’s claims was the assertion that crime has exploded across the country.

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” Trump claimed, according to his prepared remarks, which were leaked ahead of his address. “Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore.”

Crime rates overall have been steadily declining for years.

“In 2015, there was an uptick in homicides in 36 of the 50 largest cities compared to the previous years. The rate did, indeed, increase nearly 17 percent, and it was the worst annual change since 1990. The homicide rate was up 54.3 percent in Washington, and 58.5 percent in Baltimore,” explained Washington Post fact checkers Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee. “But in the first months of 2016, homicide trends were about evenly split in the major cities. Out of 63 agencies reporting to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, 32 cities saw a decrease in homicides in first quarter 2016 and 31 saw an increase.”

Ames Grawert, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said in a statement posted to the organization’s website that 2016 statistics aren’t sufficient in declaring crime rate trends. 

“Overall, crime rates remain at historic lows. Fear-inducing soundbites are counterproductive, and distract from nuanced, data-driven, and solution-oriented conversations on how to build a smarter criminal justice system in America,” Grawert said. “It’s true that some cities saw an increase in murder rates last year, and that can’t be ignored, but it’s too early to say if that’s part of a national trend.” 

When Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, was confronted with the common Republican falsehoods on crime during a Thursday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, he claimed that the FBI’s statistics were not to be trusted given that the organization recently advised against charges in connection with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

“According to FBI statistics, crime rates have been going down for decades,” Tapper told Manafort. “How can Republicans make the argument that it’s somehow more dangerous today when the facts don’t back that up?”

“People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods,” said Manafort, going on to claim that “the FBI is certainly suspect these days after what they did with Hillary Clinton.”

There was at least one notable figure who wholeheartedly embraced Trump’s fearmongering: former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. “Great Trump Speech,” tweeted Duke on Thursday evening. “Couldn’t have said it better!”

Ben Carson Claims Transgender People Are Proof of “How Absurd We Have Become”

Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson criticized the existence of transgender people while speaking at the Florida delegation breakfast on Tuesday in Cleveland.  

“You know, we look at this whole transgender thing, I’ve got to tell you: For thousands of years, mankind has known what a man is and what a woman is. And now, all of a sudden we don’t know anymore,” said Carson, a retired neurosurgeon. “Now, is that the height of absurdity? Because today you feel like a woman, even though everything about you genetically says that you’re a man or vice versa?”

“Wouldn’t that be the same as if you woke up tomorrow morning after seeing a movie about Afghanistan or reading some books and said, ‘You know what? I’m Afghanistan. Look, I know I don’t look that way. My ancestors came from Sweden, or something, I don’t know. But I really am. And if you say I’m not, you’re a racist,’” Carson said. “This is how absurd we have become.”

When confronted with his comments during an interview with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, Carson doubled down on his claims.“There are biological markers that tell us whether we are a male or a female,” said Carson. “And just because you wake up one day and you say, ‘I think I’m the other one,’ that doesn’t change it. Just, a leopard can’t change its spots.”

“It’s not as if they woke up one day and decided, ‘I’m going to be a male or I’m going to be a female,’” Couric countered, pointing out that transgender people do not suddenly choose to change their gender identities on a whim.

Carson made several similar comments last year while on the campaign trail.

In December, Carson criticized the suggested that allowing transgender people into the military amounted to using the armed services “as a laboratory for social experimentation.”

Carson once suggested that allowing transgender people to use the restroom that aligned with their gender identity amounted to granting them “extra rights.”

Ivanka Trump Claims Her Father Supports Equal Pay, Access to Child Care

Ivanka Trump, the nominee’s daughter, made a pitch during her speech Thursday night at the RNC for why women voters should support her father.

“There have always been men of all background and ethnicities on my father’s job sites. And long before it was commonplace, you also saw women,” Ivanka Trump said. “At my father’s company, there are more female than male executives. Women are paid equally for the work that we do and when a woman becomes a mother, she is supported, not shut out.” 

“As president, my father will change the labor laws that were put into place at a time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce. And he will focus on making quality child care affordable and accessible for all,” she continued before pivoting to address the gender wage gap. 

“Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties; they should be the norm. Politicians talk about wage equality, but my father has made it a practice at his company throughout his entire career.”

However, Trump’s stated positions on the gender wage gap, pregnancy and mothers in the workplace, and child care don’t quite add up to the picture the Trumps tried to paint at the RNC.

In 2004, Trump called pregnancy an “inconvenience” for employers. When a lawyer asked for a break during a deposition in 2011 to pump breast milk, Trump reportedly called her “disgusting.”

According to a June analysis conducted by the Boston Globe, the Trump campaign found that men who worked on Trump’s campaign “made nearly $6,100, or about 35 percent more [than women during the April payroll]. The disparity is slightly greater than the gender pay gap nationally.”

A former organizer for Trump also filed a discrimination complaint in January, alleging that she was paid less than her male counterparts.

When Trump was questioned about equal pay during a campaign stop last October, he did not outline his support for policies to address the issue. Instead, Trump suggested that, “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.” Though he had previously stated that men and women who do the same job should be paid the same during an August 2015 interview on MSNBC, he also cautioned that determining whether people were doing the same jobs was “tricky.”

Trump has been all but completely silent on child care so far on the campaign trail. In contrast, Clinton released an agenda in May to address the soaring costs of child care in the United States.

Ivanka’s claims were not the only attempt that night by Trump’s inner circle to explain why women voters should turn to the Republican ticket. During an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Manafort said that women would vote for the Republican nominee because they “can’t afford their lives anymore.”

“Many women in this country feel they can’t afford their lives, their husbands can’t afford to be paying for the family bills,” claimed Manafort. “Hillary Clinton is guilty of being part of the establishment that created that problem. They’re going to hear the message. And as they hear the message, that’s how we are going to appeal to them.”

What Else We’re Reading

Vox’s Dara Lind explained how “Trump’s RNC speech turned his white supporters’ fear into a weapon.”

Now that Mike Pence is the Republican nominee for vice president, Indiana Republicans have faced “an intense, chaotic, awkward week of brazen lobbying at the breakfast buffet, in the hallways and on the elevators” at the convention as they grapple with who will run to replace the state’s governor, according to the New York Times.

“This is a party and a power structure that feels threatened with extinction, willing to do anything for survival,” wrote Rebecca Traister on Trump and the RNC for New York Magazine. “They may not love Trump, but he is leading them precisely because he embodies their grotesque dreams of the restoration of white, patriarchal power.”

Though Trump spent much of the primary season denouncing big money in politics, while at the RNC, he courted billionaires in hopes of having them donate to supporting super PACs.

Michael Kranish reported for the Washington Post that of the 2,472 delegates at the RNC, it is estimated that only 18 were Black.

Cosmopolitan highlighted nine of the most sexist things that could be found at the convention.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked, “Where are these contributions that have been made” by people of color to civilization?

News Abortion

Study: United States a ‘Stark Outlier’ in Countries With Legal Abortion, Thanks to Hyde Amendment

Nicole Knight Shine

The study's lead author said the United States' public-funding restriction makes it a "stark outlier among countries where abortion is legal—especially among high-income nations."

The vast majority of countries pay for abortion care, making the United States a global outlier and putting it on par with the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan and a handful of Balkan States, a new study in the journal Contraception finds.

A team of researchers conducted two rounds of surveys between 2011 and 2014 in 80 countries where abortion care is legal. They found that 59 countries, or 74 percent of those surveyed, either fully or partially cover terminations using public funding. The United States was one of only ten countries that limits federal funding for abortion care to exceptional cases, such as rape, incest, or life endangerment.

Among the 40 “high-income” countries included in the survey, 31 provided full or partial funding for abortion care—something the United States does not do.

Dr. Daniel Grossman, lead author and director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California (UC) San Francisco, said in a statement announcing the findings that this country’s public-funding restriction makes it a “stark outlier among countries where abortion is legal—especially among high-income nations.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The researchers call on policymakers to make affordable health care a priority.

The federal Hyde Amendment (first passed in 1976 and reauthorized every year thereafter) bans the use of federal dollars for abortion care, except for cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Seventeen states, as the researchers note, bridge this gap by spending state money on terminations for low-income residents. Of the 14.1 million women enrolled in Medicaid, fewer than half, or 6.7 million, live in states that cover abortion services with state funds.

This funding gap delays abortion care for some people with limited means, who need time to raise money for the procedure, researchers note.

As Jamila Taylor and Yamani Hernandez wrote last year for Rewire, “We have heard first-person accounts of low-income women selling their belongings, going hungry for weeks as they save up their grocery money, or risking eviction by using their rent money to pay for an abortion, because of the Hyde Amendment.”

Public insurance coverage of abortion remains controversial in the United States despite “evidence that cost may create a barrier to access,” the authors observe.

“Women in the US, including those with low incomes, should have access to the highest quality of care, including the full range of reproductive health services,” Grossman said in the statement. “This research indicates there is a global consensus that abortion care should be covered like other health care.”

Earlier research indicated that U.S. women attempting to self-induce abortion cited high cost as a reason.

The team of ANSIRH researchers and Ibis Reproductive Health uncovered a bit of good news, finding that some countries are loosening abortion laws and paying for the procedures.

“Uruguay, as well as Mexico City,” as co-author Kate Grindlay from Ibis Reproductive Health noted in a press release, “legalized abortion in the first trimester in the past decade, and in both cases the service is available free of charge in public hospitals or covered by national insurance.”