Race, Class, and Social Reproduction in the Urban Present: The Case of the Detroit Water and Sewage System

Submitted by vicent on February 17, 2016

In the last decade, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, the urban centers of the Midwest such as Chicago and Detroit, but also in the Northeast, such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, have developed a new dynamic: the use of the state (in the form of local or regional governments) to transfer infrastructural resources and their control out of or away from marginalized urban populations, which are predominantly black, brown, and immigrant.1 These infrastructures range from health and educational resources to natural and civic resources such as water and sewage systems. There has been a tendency to read these battles around infrastructure as just another round of neoliberalism – another example of the “shrinking state.” Such an approach, however, seems unable to grasp how these infrastructural grabs, rather than a consequence of the state shrinking, are in fact a distinct kind of raced and classed resource transfer mobilized and sanctioned by the state. Nowhere is this clearer than in Detroit, where the predominantly white suburbs succeeded under the cover of Detroit’s 2013-14 bankruptcy proceedings to pry the possession of the water and sewage infrastructure away from the city proper. Not only have the mostly African-American residents of the city lost control of these infrastructures, they now have to subsidize the social reproduction of the predominantly white, wealthier Detroit suburbs.

We frame these ongoing resource grabs by engaging with recent work that has attempted to theorize infrastructure’s connection to modern forms of power. Brian Larkin, perhaps the most prominent theorist of the recent boom in work on infrastructure, has defined infrastructures as “matter that enable[s] the movement of other matter.”2 As such, infrastructures are systems, ones which are frequently hidden from view and considered neutral, one of whose functions is to distribute resources and govern populations: they “comprise an architecture for circulation.”3 Our contribution here is to examine how these systems of circulation have been newly politicized and how social-reproductive infrastructure, as a means for the circulation of resources, has become an object of political contestation, a means of coercive racial and class control, and also productive of race and class itself.4

We take up the Detroit “water crisis” as a case study for thinking about the connection between the successful social reproduction of predominantly white communities and the exposure of African-American and immigrant communities to premature death and failing reproduction. We develop in two ways the connection between social reproduction and race. First, we track the reproduction of predominantly white communities – that is, their provisioning with the resources and infrastructures (water, housing, education, etc.) for reproducing certain conditions of existence and capacitation. Second, we examine how race and racial difference are themselves reproduced through differential access to the means of social reproduction.5 The case of Detroit illustrates how urban social infrastructures violently produce and reproduce race and its urban geographies, shaping the flows of peoples, bodies, and access to resources.

We need to say a word about the class and racial dynamics of Detroit. The demographics of the Detroit metro area (the suburbs as a whole are more than 80 percent white, while the city is 83 percent black) have shaped to a great degree the form that the struggle over infrastructure has taken in the region. Because of the sharp demographic split between white and black populations across city and suburban lines, battles over infrastructure have been racialized along a black-white/city-suburb boundary and marked by a persistent, ongoing, long-term anti-blackness localized against the city of Detroit. It is critical to understand how this anti-black racism has determined infrastructural battles and the forms they have taken in the region and also how social infrastructure itself has been used to produce and reproduce the area’s radical binary racial divide. This means that the material and social lives of non-black communities of color and immigrants, while subject to different forms of racism and structural discrimination, are often subsumed by the binary racial logic dominating the city’s geography, infrastructure, and political discourse. Thus, non-whites as well as poor whites in the suburbs often benefit from the anti-black racism of the predominantly white suburban political elite. Similarly, the possibilities for social reproduction of white and non-black groups within the city limits have been differentially shaped by the anti-black racism that has marked flows of and access to infrastructure in the city.

The specifics of the case of Detroit, although familiar to many post-industrial cities in the Midwest, may not be directly generalizable to other urban areas which might have more spatially complicated forms of class and race differentiation and urban/suburb governance.6 However, it can help us bring out how, across the urban United States, the social-reproductive means of communities of color and immigrants are subject to conditions of intense attack through the existing social infrastructure. Urban studies scholars have shown how welfare infrastructures and the social distribution of resources, while making a vast number of marginalized populations dependent on them, were deployed strategically as a means of social control and social regulation, of racialization, of spatial segregation, and of reproducing social marginality. In the context of neoliberal restructuring, these existing dependencies are being exploited and turned against the marginalized in particularly egregious ways, through the systematic expropriation of access to the resources necessary for basic reproductive needs. These occur through withdrawals, shut-offs and closures, extortion, excessive monetary punishment, and criminalization, keeping those on the margins subordinated to a regime of poverty, debt, and exploitation.

All these instruments have the double effect of expropriation and punishment, of producing marginalization and punishing the marginalized. While they have effectively become new forms of expropriation and dispossession, they also wield new forms of discipline and social control that are specific to the neoliberal regime and that operate on the terrain of social reproduction. Working differently than the regulatory regimes of the welfare state, these are new forms of coercion, repression, and social control over communities of color, immigrants, and the poor, reproducing the structural conditions of their class. In other words, infrastructure’s function is to extract, besides resources, compliance and obedience to the work and debt regime, and also to ensure that material wealth and class power remain structurally unavailable to these communities.7

In the following, we open with how the political and economic elites of the predominantly white suburbs of Detroit have waged a juridical and legislative war since the 1970s in order to pry the possession of the water and sewage infrastructure away from the city proper before turning, by way of conclusion, to some of the historical and theoretical ramifications that can be derived from this case study.

Making Detroit the “Minority” Partner: The Battle for the Detroit Water and Sewage System

After years of debate and speculation, the largest metropolitan bankruptcy in U.S. history became a reality when the city of Detroit filed in federal court on July 18, 2013. It was not the mayor and city council who came to the decision to file for bankruptcy, however. Rather at this moment the city was under control of a governor-appointed emergency manager. An “emergency manager” is a juridical device, which exists in the state of Michigan, in which the governor, having decided that a municipality is in a state of “financial emergency,” can send an official to take control of said municipality. The official then assumes all powers of, and overrides, the mayor, city council, and other elected governing bodies, gaining the ability to break contracts, outsource work, and reorganize any part of the administrative structure in order to return the local government to “financial health.” Before Detroit exited bankruptcy in 2014, it has been estimated that over half of Michigan’s African-American population was under the non-democratic rule of emergency managers.

The decision by the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) to begin turning off the water of residents behind in their payments in April of 2014 received a great deal of national media attention.8 Roughly 30,000 people had their water disconnected in 2014; 25 percent were unable to have it turned back on in 48 hours. Moreover, in the city water rates have risen 119 percent in the last decade.9 Protests swelled throughout the summer and were given a national projection when the shut offs were condemned by the United Nations. The shutoffs came during the final months of the negotiation of the Detroit bankruptcy. As was widely reported, holders of DWSD bond debt had been demanding that the department demonstrate that it would have a more stable revenue stream in the future. The shutoffs and their political framing were read as a critique of Wall Street and finance capital – which would not be entirely wrong.10

However, such framing of the shut-offs misses two histories. The first one is the historical relation, sketched above, between the social-reproductive resources of middle- and upper-class, mostly white populations and those of black, brown, immigrant, and poor communities, which have shaped contemporary urban geographies of class and race. The second one is the suburbs’ long-term struggle to pry control of the water and sewage infrastructure from the city, as a means of securing their ability to generate revenue for their own communities. While the shut-offs were a consequence of debt negotiations and the bankruptcy of Detroit, they were also the result of this longer struggle to secure and promote the social reproduction of white communities, a struggle which has become more acute in the moment after the 2007-08 financial crisis.11

The Detroit metropolitan region is composed of four primary entities: the city of Detroit and the counties of Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland. The city runs to the border of the counties where the suburbs begin (roughly bounded by 8 Mile Road on the north and Telegraph Road on the far west). Since the 1950s, the population of the city has shrunk and the racial composition has changed dramatically. As Mathieu Desan writes:

Between 1950 and 2010, Detroit’s white population fell from 1.5 million to 75,000, with close to half of that loss occurring between 1950 and 1970, before the election of Coleman Young [Detroit’s first black mayor]. Meanwhile, Detroit’s black population has gone from accounting for 16 percent of the city’s total population in 1950 to roughly 83 percent today, standing at 590,000 (US Census Bureau). Detroit today remains one of the most segregated cities in America if one considers the metropolitan area as a whole. Whites respectively make up 81.4 percent and 91.6 percent of the suburban counties of Oakland and Macomb, while Wayne County, if one excludes Detroit, is 83.7 percent white and only 8.3 percent black.12

Like many metropolitan areas, the water system of the suburbs was an extension the city of Detroit’s system. This has meant that the city of Detroit, at least until the 1970s, controlled most aspects of the system, from price or rate setting to debt issuance to revenue. The suburbs have bought their water wholesale from the city, at a price set by the city, and then sold it on to their suburban customers. The revenue from the system was used by the city to maintain the physical infrastructure, but as revenue it could also be used for any other purpose for which the city saw fit.

The water system, and the city’s control over it, has been a target of suburban politicians since the 1970s. Because the counties have few levers of power over the city proper, their means for doing so has been juridical and legislative and their primary objective has been the creation of a new, regional governing body which they would control (their aim has been to shift Detroit to being the “minority” partner, in one county commissioner’s language). From 1977 to 2013, the water system was under the oversight of a federal judge due to non-compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations. While Judge Feikens (1977-2010), and subsequently Judge Cox (2010-13), declined to create a regional authority ex nihilo, the very fact of their oversight was the first bridgehead into the city’s authority and their approval and promotion of debt-led and neoliberal solutions has weakened the city’s power over time.13 In the 1990s, when Republicans controlled the governorship and both houses in the state of Michigan, suburban Detroit legislators made numerous attempts to create a regional authority at the state level. They finally succeeded in passing legislation in 2004, but then-Democrat governor Jennifer Granholm vetoed it. In an action from 2011, the mayor at that time Dave Bing and local politicians and community leaders protested against the attempted takeovers. It highlighted the historical legacy of appropriation and showed the level of importance in the city concerning the value of the water system. Bing’s comments at this event expressed what was the consensus amongst black (and other) politicians in the city: “It’s ludicrous for Detroit to own the system, to have all the debt but doesn’t have control of management of the system.” (Bing’s comments (being made extemporaneously – thus their grammar) can be heard in this newscast.))

However, what primarily white suburban leaders couldn’t accomplish through juridical or legislative means, the fiat of Detroit’s emergency manager could make real. Part of the bankruptcy agreement – hammered out under the authority of emergency manager Kevyn Orr, was the creation of a regional water board, The Great Lakes Water Authority (GWLA). By establishing the board, the suburbs finally accomplished their goal of wresting control of the system from the city.14 Under this new deal, Detroit retains “ownership” of the system but leases it to the authority for $USD 50 million a year.15 The new board is composed of six representatives, with only two from the city, one each from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and one appointed by the governor (currently Rick Snyder). A super-majority of five out of six votes is now needed for any “major initiatives such as raising rates, borrowing money, and hiring or firing a director.”16 What this means is that the city has lost control over price or rate setting, and it has also lost control over the revenue from the system. Perhaps most importantly, the agreement states that the GLWA can step in to set the city’s rate (i.e., the price customers pay), and takeover or outsource their collection process, if certain conditions are not being met.

Thus, as we argued above, the water shutoffs were not just an outcome of the need to placate Wall Street bondholders but were also part of a longer struggle opened up by white suburban elites, who in last decade have been largely successful in prying key pieces of infrastructure from the city.17 Suburban authorities now have a tool they can use to shield their communities from any future crises with the water system and to socialize those crises onto the residents of the city of Detroit. Given the racist on-record statements of county leaders like Oakland county commissioner L. Brooks Patterson, one should not hope for a lot of fair play in this regard.18 In essence, the balance of power with respect to control of the water system has been almost completely reversed.19 Once the owner of the system, the city is now reduced to less than a customer, as the GWLA retains a de facto oversight of city rate setting and collections. Through this infrastructural vector, Detroit residents will now subsidize the reproductive resources of upper- and middle-class, mostly white, suburbs.

Racialized Control of the Means of Reproduction: Towards A Genealogy

We want to use this analysis of the Detroit water system to reflect on the history of how white communities, since the inception of whiteness in the United States, have controlled the reproduction of and access to the means of social reproduction of immigrants and communities of color – and to reflect on how the present moment is both linked to and different from these historical conditions. While it is not possible for us in the short space of this essay to develop a detailed history, we want to signal some important ways that this control over resources and reproduction (social, individual, and familial) has been thought in the prior literature in order to establish a genealogical sketch of the battles over infrastructural resources and means of reproduction in the present.

The control of black women’s reproductive capacity and the social reproduction of black communities was foundational to the U.S. slave system, and in the last decade a rich vein of feminist scholarship has shown how this control was essential to the material functioning and ideology of New World slavery.20 For example, Pamela Bridgewater argued that, as the Atlantic slave trade was closed in 1808, the south started “producing” its own slaves, marking a shift towards discourses and practices around “breeding,” rewards for having children, and coerced reproduction as a source of profit.21 As Walter Johnson noted in his recent River of Dark Dreams, slaveholders were very clear that the social reproduction depended on “the biological reproduction of the people they owned” or that the successful reproduction of white communities and families depended on the control, not just of slave labor power, but on the resources for and “raw materials” of black bodies’ self-reproduction:

It was not exactly that slaveholders were indifferent to the reproduction of their slaves. Certainly […], most recognized that their own social reproduction, their own legacy to the future – as a class, as members of families, as fathers – depended on the biological reproduction of the people they owned. As with other forms of property, slaveholders used enslaved people to articulate the connections between white households and generations. As a slaveholders’ saying had it, there were three things necessary to beginning a family: a wife, a house, and a slave to work in it.22

The active control of reproduction of black and immigrant populations has been central both to white domination and to the successful reproduction of white communities. Reproduction of white communities in the United States was never “self-sufficient” as the logic of neoliberalism would have us believe; rather, it has depended historically on the control of the means of social reproduction of black, brown, and immigrant communities, to secure its flourishing, while also serving as a vector of white domination. Both of these aspects are present in the current appropriation of urban infrastructures by majority white communities in the Detroit suburbs.

Post-slavery, the differential channeling and appropriation of resources by whites has passed through three primary moments. One of the critical pieces of the New Deal, the Social Security Act, left out both domestic and agricultural workers who accounted for 90 percent of the black, as well as most of the Mexican-American and immigrant, labor force in that moment.23 Moreover, as Mary Poole recently showed, the exclusion of African Americans was not merely the result of an anachronistic southern racism, but rather enacted nationally by “a shifting web of alliances of white policymakers that crossed regions and political parties” who “shared an interest in protecting the political and economic value of whiteness.”24 The same is the case for the post-war period in which the massive flows of Federal dollars that poured into local communities did so in ways to preferentially support the social reproduction of white communities by promoting white flight and extending segregationist practices into the suburbs. With the rise of the penal or carceral state that Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Loïc Wacquant have described, these institutional arrangements were continued and refashioned through a transfer of resources out of the welfare state and into the warfare state (to use Wilson’s language).25

In the case of the Detroit water system takeover, these historical dynamics take on new inflections, in particular in how infrastructure has been newly tied into the reproduction of race and economic marginality. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has argued, racism is “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”26 Although there are multiple ways in which this vulnerability is produced, the withdraw of infrastructure that delivers essential resources, while not entirely “new,” is, we suggest, being reconstituted uniquely within the U.S. system of structural racism as it participates in spatial regimes of class power. In these contemporary configurations, the social reproduction of white communities, through state mechanisms, is supported by or parasitically feeds upon black, brown, and immigrant communities and resources. At the same time, the water system and its withdrawal has been converted into a tool for intensifying class oppression. Residents are now forced to choose between paying water bills and buying food or school supplies. It also appears that the recent spike of foreclosures in the city of Detroit can at least be partially attributed to residents falling behind on mortgage or property tax payments due to increasing water bill pressures.

These seizures of infrastructure are structured by processes that are both historical and emergent. Certainly, they form a part of the genealogy of state-sanctioned forms of resource seizure from or transfer out of economically and racially marginalized communities. While far-right positions around the need to limit the carceral state gain steam, our intuition is that the complex system forming around infrastructure, social reproduction, and racial and social marginality represents a potentially new site of reproducing class and racial domination through the two-fold dynamic of both extracting resources from the poor and communities of color and coercing them into compliance.27

To say this in a slightly different way, we generally find the most convincing accounts of neoliberalism, such as Loïc Wacquant’s, to be those that focus not on the shrinking of the state, but rather on the transfer of resources from the welfare state into the carceral state. This essay has traced another form of transfer, omitted by accounts like Wacquant’s, namely, the transfer of infrastructure. To some extent, capitalist cities have historically been sites of population control, but the state-sanctioned or authorized transfer of resources and capacities for social reproduction in and out of differently raced and classed communities via infrastructural control turns the city itself into a site of intensified coercion and repression. Limiting or conditioning access to the infrastructural means of reproduction thus becomes an effective disciplinary instrument involved not just in the biopolitical governance of “life” (the way Foucault has defined the liberal and welfare state) but that successfully mobilizes the specter of death, famine, homelessness, prison, illness and abandon to exert coercive control.


We would like to conclude with a few observations of a political nature. Most often, the politics one finds in the 1970s literature on social reproduction blends some form of anti-capitalism with a turn to the state, requests to the state for funding, or an orientation towards the state as a site of struggle. We think that the present moment demands that we begin to address these historical legacies of reliance on the state and think differently about politics around social reproduction.

If politics of social reproduction in the 1970s blended anti-capitalism with a turn to the state, what feels different about the present is that much of the state apparatus, to deploy Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s distinction, has been transferred from welfare to warfare. It is hard to imagine turning to the state in the present – where there once might have been points of entry for negotiation, cooptation, and mediation, today one more often finds doors leading into the carceral, judicial, and deportation systems. We know, of course, that historically the state and infrastructural apparatus attached to it have always been used to discipline. What is perhaps distinctive in the present is that the welfare justification of these tools of discipline has dropped away or rather the balance between the state’s “welfare” and “warfare” functionalities has tipped more decisively in the direction of warfare.

These resource and infrastructure seizures in the present generate, almost immediately, acute crises of social reproduction. If you live on a block where the majority of residents have no running water – before there can be a political project of wresting control of the infrastructure back from the suburbs – one is faced with the immediate daily problem of how to source water. At the same time, another particularity of the present, is how one community’s crisis underpins another’s successful reproduction. Where once there was at least a pretense to maintaining a reserve army in conditions in which they could be drawn into the labor force, now, instead of minimal conditions of life, one finds deepening crisis and a widening separation between majority white communities in which social reproduction is possible and those which have been increasingly subordinated by the state and capital to regimes of poverty, debt, and exploitation. One of the tasks of the present then will be to find a way through this situation, a terrain of social reproduction defined more by warfare than welfare, one defined less by biopolitical forms of welfare state discipline and more by forms of the intensification of the disruption of group, familial, and individual processes of social reproduction. Historically, struggles around social reproduction have opened onto the forging of autonomous forms of governance, networks of mutual care, survival, and wellbeing, and invite communities to take back the resources and knowledges necessary for caring for each other and reproducing and continuing to survive on a daily basis. Our sense is that autonomous forms of organizing will be an important part of any political project addressing current crises in social reproduction. Clearly though, putting into play infrastructural systems will also greatly challenge, due to their complex material and technological legacies, a politics of mutual care and autonomy. However, rather than a permanent obstacle to struggle, working through these kinds of challenges are what it would mean to learn to struggle anew on the terrain of social reproduction in the present.