- Racial MicrobiopoliticsFlint Lead Poisoning, Detroit Water Shut Offs, and The "Matter" of Enfleshment
introduction: flint, detroit, and water regulation as racial microbiopolitics
In June 2013, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) cut off Flint's water supply in response to the city's proposal to reportedly save money by switching to The Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). In the interim, the city made a contract for water with a private engineering firm. The Houston-based firm, Lockwood, Andrews & Newman, also had offices in Flint and began using the Flint River water instead of Lake Huron and Detroit River water. Meanwhile, in nearby Detroit and in April 2013, the DWSD entered a "contract with Homrich, a demolition company, to carry out 70,000 shutoffs in 730 days … sponsored by Rodney Johnson of Grosse Pointe" (Bellant et al.). The DWSD reportedly initiated this to do damage control over the debt incurred from delinquent water bills. A year later, both Flint and Detroit began experiencing residential push back on the privatized water regulation and shut off processes: in April 2014, residents in Flint began complaining about the water, reporting rashes, and bacteria concerns, while nearby residents in Detroit began a protracted battle over 17,000 residents having their water shut off. Flint issued a boil water advisory to kill e coli and boost chlorine flushing, but did not formally acknowledge the toxicity levels as a danger to residents. By August 2014, both cities' residents had begun protesting the inability to access clean and affordable water at home.
Both the Detroit and Flint events are useful for analyzing of how racialization happens through regulation of and access to water, especially since the large majority of the population in each city self-identifies as Black or African American.1 The political battle also put race in the forefront of its protests over clean, affordable water in postindustrial urban spaces. This was heightened by the "Black Lives Matter" (BLM) movement simultaneously receiving increased publicity. Both Flint and Detroit's "water crises" and subsequent protests demand an examination of how the privatization and regulation of water participates in making the all-too "material" component of protests that align with "Black Lives Matter" increasingly [End Page 19] evident. This materiality in both the cultural (race) and literal (water) sense is especially notable since both cities are also part of a larger narrative of globalization and the privatization of water within the U.S. Citizens went up against corporate and State interests over water politics to stake a claim in the right to life itself, a right only possible with access to clean water.2 By articulating together the violence of poisoning or withholding water within two cities near the Great Lakes, a specific history of racialized violence and protest to that violence surfaces. This article explores this history to ask how water is wielded as both "matter" and "metaphor" to implicitly say that some protected lives "matter" more than those exposed to precarity by privatizing and regulating "matter" itself. Turning to the language of literal and cultural meanings for matter creates a historical, material analysis of how water regulation violently racializes.
Analyzing coverage of water shut offs and poisoning in Flint and Detroit means turning to the language of cultural representation and risk management (unsafe water or debt over water). Such a turn to the representative implications of phrases such as BLM and photographic coverage, as well as finance capital's language of risk management, is not a question of essential identities, populations made into surplus labor, nor representation divorced from historical, material formations. Instead, examining the representative mediums of language and imagery in both Flint and Detroit as they intersect with the logics of finance capital accounts for how populations are made to seem surplus as post-industrial de-labored forces. This article will argue that in both Detroit and Flint, water is wielded to make some residents seem to bear the significations of social death, risk itself, and contamination. At the same time, this racialization forces the residents to experience the potential violence already inherent to all bodies' trans-corporeal relationship with the "matter" of life that can be contaminated: water. In other...