In the decade before the COVID-19 pandemic, metropolitan Detroit suffered two entirely preventable environmental disasters. In the aftermath of the subprime mortgage meltdown, state-appointed Emergency Managers ramped up a policy of water shut-offs in Detroit, forcing over a quarter-million people to live without running water for days, weeks, and in some cases months and years at a time. Simultaneously, they mismanaged the removal of Flint from Detroit’s water system, resulting in a toxic water disaster that may have killed dozens of people. Moreover, rates of child lead poisoning increased in both Detroit and Flint after Emergency Management.
How can we explain these water disasters in the historic heartland of automobile manufacturing, in a state surrounded by the Great Lakes? Most studies of environmental injustice focus on “fenceline communities,” which are often Black, Latinx, indigenous, and poor white communities living near toxic waste dumps, refineries, and other industrial sites.
To understand the environmental disasters in Detroit and Flint, I argue, we need to examine the role of financial deregulation, predatory lending, and austerity policies in producing “toxic debt.” I further argue that, to understand the remaking of the environmental justice movement in Detroit since the 1990s, we need to broaden our focus beyond the fenceline to include welfare rights and anti-austerity activists, led by working class African American women, responding to crises of social reproduction produced by neoliberal economic policies and toxic debt.
Josiah Rector is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston. He received his Ph.D. in History from Wayne State University in 2017. His forthcoming book is entitled Toxic Debt: An Environmental Justice History of Detroit (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022).
Guest Discussant Dr. Sarika Chandra, Associate Professor of English at Wayne State University.
Green Street is Wayne State University’s main celebration of Sustainability in Higher Education.
Hosted by the Office of Campus Sustainability, Green Street happens in October and it is a month of activities and curated conversations between disciplines and communities about environmental challenges, environmental science, environmental justice, the environmental humanities and more.
This year's focus is on environmental justice and sustainability. Our program includes online talks by a local meteorologist, state of Michigan policy makers, scholars, panels and outdoor activities to raise awareness about environmental justice and sustainability.
The events are open and free to the greater Detroit and Wayne State community.