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A bucket in the river: race and public discourse on water shutoffs in Detroit

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Since 2014, the city of Detroit has undertaken a massive program of water shutoffs targeting households behind in their water bills. In this article, I ask how, given the level of hardship to such a high proportion of city residents, the health hazards, and in the face of international condemnation, were public officials able to narrate the water shutoffs as necessary, and indeed as a public good? The study finds that as supposedly race-neutral statements by public officials in favor of the shutoffs cast them in terms of individual irresponsibility, informal comments to news articles restated these same ideas in explicitly anti-Black terms. Commenters’ elaboration makes explicit the ways in which the water shutoffs have relied on a widespread sense of Black Detroiters as undeserving of even the most basic means of dignified life – access to potable water.
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Keywords: Detroit; Water; anti-Blackness; austerity; racial coding; welfare

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Ethnic Studies, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ, USA

Publication date: July 3, 2020

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