Detroit and Toxic Debt

Today marks eight years since the beginning of the ongoing Flint water contamination crisis.

The following is an excerpt from Toxic Debt: An Environmental Justice History of Detroit by Josiah Rector, officially on sale tomorrow wherever ebooks and books are sold.


Between 2014 and 2019, the City of Detroit shut off water for over 141,000 residential accounts, denying more than a quarter million people access to a basic survival necessity. Over this five-year period, members of the People’s Water Board Coalition and other activist groups were arrested for civil disobedience, filed lawsuits, lobbied for legislation at all levels of government, and even petitioned the United Nations, but the City of Detroit continued its policy of mass water shutoffs. It was only the arrival of the global COVID-19 pandemic in the late winter and early spring of 2020 that compelled the State of Michigan to order a temporary water shutoff moratorium. How could a city that one historian calls the “capital of the twentieth century” force hundreds of thousands of residents to live without running water in the twenty-first century? And how could such large-scale deprivation of water occur in a state surrounded by the Great Lakes? This book seeks to answer those questions—and a series of related ones about racism, capitalism, and unequal access to the means of human survival—by examining the history of Detroit since the late nineteenth century through the lens of environmental justice.

In 2019, the population of Detroit was 78.3 percent African American, 35 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty line, and per capita incomes were $18,621. Detroit’s water shutoffs were overwhelmingly concentrated among impoverished African Americans and disproportionately impacted the disabled, single mothers and their children, and elderly people living on fixed incomes. Water service disconnections forced the residents who were most likely to be unemployed, medically underserved, and lack a motor vehicle to live without running water for days, weeks, months, and in some cases years at a time.

By the end of April 2021, Detroit had confirmed 2,008 COVID-19 deaths and 133 probable deaths, along with over 46,000 cases. As in other states, the death toll from COVID-19 in Michigan reflected the egregious racial and economic inequalities that existed before the pandemic. Whereas African Americans made up 14 percent of Michigan’s population, they made up over 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the first six months of the pandemic. According to the Michigan Disease Surveillance System, between March and July 2020 African Americans in Michigan died of COVID-19 at 6.7 times the rate of whites, while Latinx Americans died at twice the rate of whites. Some commentators, such as the sociologist Sabrina Strings, have emphasized the long-term historical roots of Black-white disparities in COVID-19 deaths, attributing them to intergenerational patterns of racism and oppression dating back to slavery. As Strings wrote in a New York Times op-ed, these disparities “are rooted in a shameful era of American history that took place hundreds of years before this pandemic.”

In the case of Detroit, the origins of these disparities were historically multilayered, and in important respects were directly connected to the legacies of racial slavery and segregation in both the North and the South. However, such transhistorical analyses can also falsely imply that they have changed little over the centuries while obscuring more recent culprits and potential solutions. Race, class, and gender inequalities in exposure to environmental hazards in Detroit (including microbes, industrial air and water pollutants, and toxic lead paint) have risen and fallen in different historical periods as a result of changes in political economy and public policy. For instance, racial disparities in tuberculosis deaths in Detroit rose dramatically in the 1920s, gradually declined in the 1930s and 1940s, and then increased again in the 1950s and 1960s even as overall tuberculosis deaths fell sharply.  Lead poisoning disparities declined in the late twentieth century and then increased again in the twenty-first. Perhaps most strikingly, water shutoffs in Detroit occurred only sporadically between 1934 and 2002 and then escalated to crisis proportions, widening racial disparities in vulnerability to infectious disease. These fluctuations cannot be explained transhistorically.

In addition to the unsanitary conditions created by water deprivation, industrial pollution and dilapidated public infrastructure contributed to underlying health conditions that exacerbated the risks of COVID-19 in Detroit. According to a 2017 study by Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments, a research partnership sponsored by the University of Michigan School of Public Health, air pollution caused an average of 690 excess deaths, 1,800 hospitalizations, and 3,400 asthma-related doctor’s visits in Detroit every year. Indeed, the study estimated that “ambient air pollution represents 7 percent of deaths in the city,” more than all the lives lost to homicide. Industrial facilities and motor vehicles spewing fine particulate matter, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and other air contaminants killed more Detroiters annually than the perpetrators of gun violence.

Moreover, early twenty-first-century Detroit was experiencing a lead poisoning epidemic even worse than the more widely publicized case of Flint, Michigan. Governor Rick Snyder’s policies of environmental deregulation, including the weakening of air pollution permit conditions, contributed directly to the problem. So too did the elimination of Detroit’s lead abatement program in 2012, partly due to Governor Snyder’s cuts in state revenue sharing, and a recklessly executed municipal “blight removal” program that blanketed Detroit neighborhoods with lead dust from demolition debris. As a result, rates of child lead poisoning in Detroit increased from 6.9 percent to 8.8 percent between 2015 and 2016, a rate over twice as high as in Flint in the aftermath of that city’s water disaster. These toxic and unsanitary conditions in too many Detroit neighborhoods made residents more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 For anyone familiar with the environmental justice movement and the interdisciplinary field of research it has inspired over the past three decades, the concentration of industrial pollutants and other health hazards in poor communities of color will come as no surprise. Toxic Debt pushes beyond some of the limits of the field, however. Most early environmental justice studies focused on contemporary manifestations of race and class inequalities in spatial proximity to toxic waste dumps and air pollution sources such as refineries, factories, and trash incinerators. With increasing sophistication, scholars have analyzed what sociologist David N. Pellow calls processes of “environmental inequality formation” over time. We now have a burgeoning historical literature on the making of urban environmental inequalities in every region of the United States.

Nevertheless, the standard narratives of environmental justice studies, including historical studies of urban environmental inequality, cannot fully explain the human-engineered public health disasters in twenty-first century Detroit and Flint. While most environmental justice studies examine communities on the “fence line” of billowing smokestacks and toxic waste dumps, finance and real estate have been no less historically implicated in racialized environmental injustice than heavy industry. Those who have profited from municipal bonds, mortgage loans, and land speculation have played a critical role in the unequal distribution of environmental health hazards. Over the past forty years, I argue, debt and the politics of austerity have become increasingly central to the struggle for environmental justice in the city. Banks, bond rating agencies, and state-appointed emergency finance managers have imposed austerity policies that turned environmental risks into humanitarian disasters in Detroit, Flint, and other Black-majority cities in Michigan. I use the concept of toxic debt to theorize this trend of environmental load displacement by financial capitalists and the state onto urban communities of color, as exemplified by Flint’s poisoned water and Detroit’s mass water shutoffs.


Josiah Rector is assistant professor of history at the University of Houston.