Institute at Brown for Environment and SocietyIBES

Thirsty for Environmental Justice. Racialized Austerity and Michigan’s War over Urban Water

Nov 6, 2020

Guest speaker: Michael Mascarenhas, University of California - Berkeley

What happened in Flint is a complicated story. Public hearings and written testimonies, task force reports, numerous civil law suits and criminal charges, hundreds of newspaper stories and scholarly articles, and numerous books have tried to capture some version of truth about what is generally known as the Flint Water Crisis (FWC). The majority of these documents and texts have tended to focus on neglect (of federal and state agencies, engineering firms, consultants, politicians, local government, academics, etc.). My interest in the FWC is not of neglect but rather the intent and close coordination of the battalion of architects and players (lawyers, engineering firms, corporate consultants and non-profits) committed to advancing austerity measures in Michigan. Austerity, as practiced in Michigan represents a particular manifestation of racialized power in the region, a new white political power that advances environmental racism through the colorblind discourse of austerity. This analysis is more consistent with activists and community claims that the mostly white (male) decision-makers are responsible for the FWC. In particular, I argue, that racialization is the x factor or determining variable that balances the math equation of austerity. And the more obscure the math the more the derivative of racialization is advanced into the logics of austerity. This framing of environmental racism draws on the scholarship of Joe Feagin, Sean Elias, Michelle Alexander, and others, and positions white agents, especially elite whites, explicitly at the forefront of analysis of environmental racism in Flint (Alexander, 2012; Feagin & Elias, 2013).  

Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow. Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised Edition. New York, NY: The New Press.

Feagin, J., & Elias, S. (2013). Rethinking Racial Formation Theory: a Systemic Racism Critique. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36(6), 931-960. 

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