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

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Analysis Race

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

Elizabeth Mosley & 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.) 

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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.