The Detroit Renewable Power waste incinerator

Jim West/Alamy

The Detroit Renewable Power waste incinerator, located on the city’s predominantly Black east side, a year after it closed down, October 2020

The environmental justice movement—the fight of Black, brown, immigrant, indigenous, and poor communities to free themselves of unequal environmental burdens (dirty air, unclean water, toxic chemicals, etc.)—is often said to have begun in late 1978, when a group of Black homeowners in Houston hired the attorney Linda McKeever Bullard to halt the opening of a landfill just feet from their local public school. In 1982 Black residents of Warren County, North Carolina, launched a sit-in campaign to protest their exposure to toxic chemicals, generating headlines nationwide. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, major studies conducted by the federal government, the United Church of Christ, and the sociologist Robert Bullard (the Houston attorney’s husband) documented the disproportionate location of dumps and landfills in Black neighborhoods—a phenomenon that came to be called “environmental racism.”

In 1991 the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit met in the nation’s capital, and within a few years various federal agencies had committed (at least on paper) to the movement’s goals. While scholars have noted the importance of earlier events—the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis (at which Martin Luther King Jr. spoke just before his assassination) or the United Farm Workers’ campaigns to eliminate pesticides during the 1960s—the movement is nonetheless generally thought to have originated in the 1980s and 1990s and in the urban South.

In Toxic Debt: An Environmental Justice History of Detroit, Josiah Rector, who teaches at the University of Houston, instead looks northward to Detroit and its environs. As a graduate student at Wayne State University in Detroit a decade ago, he first came across records that charted the city’s rich and often overlooked history of environmental justice organizing. It was also in Detroit that Rector, a white newcomer in a city that is nearly 80 percent Black, witnessed one of the most naked displays of environmental injustice in recent memory.

Beginning in 2014, the City of Detroit shut off the water of more than a quarter-million people. Starting at the same time, authorities in nearby Flint made a series of cost-cutting decisions that resulted in lead-laced water being pumped into thousands of homes. Astonishingly, Detroit’s water has been so foul for so long that its rate of childhood lead poisoning is twice as high as Flint’s—despite the fact that the city is surrounded by the largest freshwater system in the world. During Rector’s time there, moreover, Detroit recorded the highest rate of childhood asthma among the nation’s largest cities. A 2017 study estimates that air pollution causes 7 percent of all deaths in Detroit—more than twice the city’s rate of homicide.

After interviewing activists and immersing himself in the region’s archives, Rector concluded that the “existing literature on environmental justice did not give me the conceptual vocabulary I needed to make sense of what I was seeing in Detroit,” both past and present. A decade later, he has written a book that advances two major interventions. First, it pushes back the environmental justice movement’s genesis to midcentury union organizing. Second, and just as significantly, it firmly connects the effects of debt and austerity—that is to say, capitalism—to environmental racism.

“While most environmental justice studies examine communities on the ‘fence line’ of billowing smokestacks and toxic waste dumps,” Rector writes, “finance and real estate have been no less historically implicated in racialized environmental injustice than heavy industry.” Toxic Debt concretely documents this history by recovering the voices, names, and actions of individuals whose fights have been forgotten or buried.

It is an especially dark irony that, for hundreds of years, access to water was central to the identity of the place now called Detroit. To the Huron-Wyandot people, this flat expanse of land was Taochiarontkion, or “the coast of the strait.” To the Anishinaabe, it was Waawiiyaataanong, or “where the water curves around.” To the first French settlers arriving at the dawn of the eighteenth century, it was simply Le détroit, or “the strait.”

The colonizers from France brought not merely a new name but new diseases, new systems of violence, and new methods for exploiting the area’s natural resources. From their first days, they dumped refuse and raw sewage into the tributaries of the Detroit River. Their pollution was so prolific that early-nineteenth-century observers compared the city’s water to a sewer. As more settlers arrived, well water came to be insufficient to slake the city’s thirst. In 1805 municipal authorities began charging for access to public water, and in 1853 the state legislature created a Board of Water Commissioners. Officials laid dozens of miles of water pipes, mostly in the whiter and more affluent parts of town. Immigrants, Black people, and those on the city’s outskirts were forced to drink less sanitary water.


Throughout the nineteenth century, the continued presence of sewage in the water led to repeated outbreaks of disease. A particularly deadly bout of typhoid fever in 1892 coincided with a debilitating economic panic in 1893 and increased labor radicalism among the working class; as unemployment climbed to 33 percent in 1894, pressure mounted on the city’s elite to provide safe and affordable drinking water. In 1895 the populist mayor Hazen Pingree ran for reelection on a platform of eliminating all fees for water access. He won by a wide margin, sweeping all wards except the wealthiest. Yet Michigan’s industrialists decried what they called “state socialism,” and ultimately they killed Pingree’s proposal.

In the first years of the twentieth century, the cause of safer drinking water was picked up by bourgeois reformers. In 1913 Detroit began chlorinating its water supply, and in the 1920s it inaugurated a filtration system. The sewer system was gradually expanded, though it was not until 1940 that the city began treating its sewage and not until 1942 that it finally recorded zero deaths from typhoid.

With industrialization came rapid growth. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, Detroit’s geographic area and population both swelled fivefold; the Black population increased twentyfold between 1910 and 1930, as people fled north to escape the indignities and terrors of Jim Crow. Housing discrimination forced these migrants to live in the least sanitary parts of the city. Ironically, growth also led the authorities to call for the demolition of “slums”—that is, the homes of Detroit’s poorest residents—in the name of sanitation. Rumors that their “alley is to be converted into a fashionable boulevard” led the “colored women and gentlemen” of one widely denigrated neighborhood to hold what the Detroit Free Press called an “indignation meeting,” but they could not stop the demolitions and were displaced.

Factories, especially car factories, sprang up across Detroit and beyond its boundaries. By 1929 the world’s largest factory—Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex, located just southwest of the city limits—had nearly 100,000 laborers producing more than a million cars a year. The introduction of moving assembly lines and automatic equipment increased respiratory hazards for workers; one technological innovation, the automatic paint spray gun, made lead poisoning a common affliction.

Those most affected by air pollution were Black and immigrant laborers, but the loudest objections came from white homeowners. Their demands had led to the passage of a smoke ordinance back in 1887, over the complaints of local industrialists. Yet it soon proved to be weak and poorly enforced; the city had no smoke inspectors, and factory owners refused to respond to their workers’ complaints. A slightly stronger smoke ordinance, passed in 1925, “modestly” reduced smoke pollution, but Black tuberculosis deaths still spiked in the following years.

The disparate racial effects of industrialization, ghettoization, and low wages were obvious. In 1927 a massive fire broke out at an auto plant; seventeen of the twenty-one workers who lost their lives were Black, as were twenty-three of the twenty-eight who were severely burned. By 1930 fewer than 8 percent of Detroit’s residents were Black, but they accounted for nearly 40 percent of tuberculosis deaths. Some white public health officials claimed that Black people were “uniquely susceptible to tuberculosis,” while other experts argued that “Negroes can stand more heat and have better stamina on arduous jobs.” Yet substandard housing and employment and medical discrimination plainly led to higher rates of disease and death. Black and immigrant workers continued to be shunted into poorer neighborhoods, where the water was fouler, and into jobs at which they breathed dirtier air.

The Depression hit Detroit with sickening force. Demand for automobiles fell 75 percent between 1929 and 1932, and almost half of Detroit’s autoworkers lost their jobs. The city’s welfare rolls increased by 5,000 percent in just four years; by 1931 Detroit had the highest unemployment rate of the nation’s largest cities. It laid off nine of its ten smoke inspectors, so air pollution worsened in spite of the downturn in manufacturing.

It took federal intervention to halt the decline. New Deal agencies funded grand public works and rescued the city from financial insolvency; they took over the task of regulating banks and mortgages, averting financial and foreclosure crises; they also created tens of thousands of jobs in Detroit, saving many workers from destitution and from having their water turned off. At the same time, these agencies enforced policies that entrenched segregation and management control over workers. Federal defense spending during World War II further swelled the employment rolls. Yet after the war ended, the federal government returned virtually all oversight to the cities and states.

As the nation—and Detroit in particular—entered a postwar boom, the city still lacked virtually any enforceable environmental regulations. Its business titans opposed even modest steps to ameliorate the situation, using the carrot of philanthropy and the stick of capital flight to ensure that they got their way. Suburbanization and deindustrialization began regardless, shrinking Detroit’s tax base even as environmental burdens worsened in the increasingly Black and brown urban core. Something had to give.


The most sustained opposition to environmental injustice in Detroit came from the city’s labor unions. In the 1920s the Communist-led Auto Workers Union decried “the present capitalist system” as responsible for polluted air and deadly fires. In the 1930s the less revolutionary United Auto Workers (UAW) organized against lead poisoning. In the 1940s and 1950s the UAW doggedly recruited Black autoworkers, who in turn challenged their consignment to dirtier, more dangerous jobs. Yet as Rector points out, the UAW initially shied away from bolder demands that its leaders deemed counterproductive. Its organizing efforts won higher wages and better benefits, but in exchange the union stopped seeking access to factories’ medical files or toxicological research, dropped calls for worker participation in factory management, and purged its most radical members.

Only in the 1960s did more recognizable environmental justice activism emerge. After Chrysler opened the Huber Foundry in 1966—the first large factory to open in Detroit in a decade—residents of the working-class community where it was built started to speak out about the dust, dirt, and smoke that invaded their homes and lungs, and the UAW pressured municipal officials to require pollution controls. Workers launched a similar campaign to “eliminate the smoke and poisonous gases” emitted from Ford’s River Rouge complex, and UAW leaders began hosting conferences and giving speeches, imploring thousands of members to “go back to your respective communities as missionaries in helping us generate and mobilize and organize a great citizen’s crusade for clean and pure water.”

The UAW pledged its support for the federal Air Pollution Act of 1967, and in the spring of that year it founded a committee that exhorted community members to report illegal pollution to public officials. Two years later, the UAW’s Conservation and Recreation Department launched an audacious organizing drive, working with local unions to picket, protest, and pressure officials to achieve “an immediate halt to the excessive pollution being dumped into the air and water of downriver communities by Ford, Great Lakes Steel, and others.” Days before the first Earth Day in April 1970, a group of women—labeled “irate housewives” by the Detroit News—picketed Great Lakes Steel’s blast furnaces, telling the press they wanted to protect their children from pollution and regulators were doing nothing about it.

Such protests were far from the most explosive uprisings in American cities during the 1960s. Civil rights activists decried the unsanitary conditions of the overcrowded apartment buildings in which Black residents were forced to live; with sit-ins, rent strikes, and direct confrontation, they protested lead paint, utility shut-offs, rats, bedbugs, roaches, mold, and the destructive policy of “urban renewal” (the razing of the homes of poor people and people of color). Commissions hastily established after major riots—including the famous uprising in Detroit in 1967—found that “the crowded and degraded physical environment of the ghetto itself,” as Rector puts it, was a major source of outrage. “While environmental concerns did not cause the rebellions that shook Detroit neighborhoods and factories between 1965 and 1973,” Rector concludes, “they contributed to widespread anger over living and working conditions and played a direct role in radicalizing many activists.”

As the 1970s began, rank-and-file workers became more militant. “Conditions that in earlier years might have provoked a grievance filing now often became the basis for stopping production,” Rector writes. And those workers—radical Black workers, especially—were borrowing “the language of the environmental movement to critique their working conditions, particularly in foundries.” They decried the UAW’s insufficient progress in improving safety inside factories and the water and air outside, leading the union to belatedly embrace a push for “full employment” legislation—a legal guarantee that workers would not have to choose between economic and environmental justice.

In the mid-1970s, the UAW’s Conservation and Recreation Department assembled a coalition of hundreds of civil rights, labor, and environmental organizations, culminating in the Working for Environmental and Economic Justice and Jobs conference in Black Lake, Michigan, in 1976. “A fundamental underlying premise of the conference was that racial, economic, and environmental inequalities were interrelated problems,” Rector writes. He argues that the now largely forgotten conference—which concluded with the singing of “Solidarity Forever”—was a historical milestone and evidence that “the concept of environmental justice was already circulating in activist spaces” years before the conventional account suggests.

This window of radical potential closed quickly. Between 1950 and 1980, two thirds of manufacturing jobs disappeared in Detroit. In just three years, between 1979 and 1982, the UAW lost almost a third of its members, and the Big Three automakers shuttered dozens of plants. White residents largely completed their suburban exodus, leaving the city’s poorer majority to live in dilapidated homes with dangerous lead-lined pipes. Detroit elected its first Black mayor, Coleman Young, in 1974, but he inherited a fiscal crisis, with demolition crews tearing down thousands of abandoned urban homes even as construction crews erected tens of thousands of houses in the suburbs. Faced with mounting economic devastation and antiunion Reaganite conservatism, the UAW broke with its environmental partners, abandoned its call for full employment, and cut the Conservation and Recreation Department’s staff. Its coalition with civil rights groups did not survive the 1980s.

By the time the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit met in 1991, Detroit had become the poorest large city in the country. And though some Detroit activists attended the summit, Rector notes that the “economic justice demands made at Black Lake were strikingly absent,” which he attributes to “the diminished role of labor unions in the movement.” The call for “environmental and economic justice and jobs” was now simply a call for “environmental justice.”

Rector might have concluded there, in the early 1990s, completing a neat narrative of the rise and fall of a labor–environmental–civil rights coalition. But he continues the story to the present day and addresses many modern battles and controversies, including the increasing centrality of municipal debt to Detroit’s environmental catastrophe.

On the day the Environmental Leadership Summit opened in Washington, D.C., Detroit finalized the sale of a municipal incinerator to the financial services subsidiary of tobacco giant Philip Morris, in a deal brokered by Goldman Sachs. Over the next thirty years, this incinerator belched hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into a predominantly Black neighborhood on Detroit’s East Side.

Rector uses this incinerator, and the battles over it, to exemplify how cuts in federal aid, metropolitan segregation, an evaporating urban tax base, and Reagan-era regulatory policy (including a change in the acceptable level of cancer risk) all made Detroit more dependent on such public-private partnerships. Deindustrialization had emptied the city’s coffers, and Mayor Young—who was in office from 1974 until 1994—and other municipal leaders who held on to power for decades capitulated to wealthy private investors while describing environmentalists as Detroit-bashers, outside agitators, and racists. The incinerator deal was an attempt to dig Detroit out from under tens of millions of dollars of debt, but the tax breaks the deal guaranteed to investors ultimately indebted the city even further.

Rector also tracks resistance to sites like the incinerator, which pitted a Black mayor and City Council majority against a predominantly white environmental coalition—its makeup, he argues, reflected “the collapse of labor-environmental coalition politics after Black Lake.” Activists, including new ecofeminist groups, attempted through civil disobedience to shutter the incinerator, but the UAW refused to condemn it. And while some activists of color and rank-and-file union members participated in anti-incinerator actions, the opposition lacked a multiracial, cross-class base.

In recent decades, Detroit’s leaders have slowly hollowed out the city’s municipal workforce, laying off union members and relying more and more on private contractors. This has coincided with a rise in water costs and billing irregularities. At the federal and state levels, Clintonite politicians “reformed” the welfare system and deregulated big banks. Such policies led to the withdrawal of vital support from many poor Detroiters, as well as the proliferation of subprime mortgages (disproportionately targeted at people of color), the resultant financial crash of 2008, and then a collapse in property values. Working-class Detroiters could not afford their property taxes, in part because officials continued to assess properties at their pre-2008 levels, and between 2011 and 2015 the city foreclosed on more than 100,000 homes.

The federal government intervened to protect the predatory banks and failing auto companies but offered no similar benefit to struggling homeowners; its unwillingness to regulate credit default swaps and derivatives even in the aftermath of 2008 “contributed directly to Detroit’s municipal fiscal crisis,” Rector writes. Escalating debt, in turn, resulted in continued water rate hikes.

In 2011, with cities across Michigan deep in debt, the state legislature enacted a law that radically expanded the power of emergency managers (state officials appointed to oversee municipalities in fiscal crisis), allowing them to effectively override the authority of all elected officials in a city and suspend all collective bargaining by municipal employees for five years. In 2013 Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed a bankruptcy attorney, Kevyn Orr (from the corporate firm Jones Day, which represented several of the Wall Street banks that had been directly involved in Detroit’s housing and debt crises), as emergency manager for Detroit. Months later, Orr filed for bankruptcy on behalf of the city, citing an inflated debt load, and hired his former firm to manage the bankruptcy.

The “grand bargain” that Jones Day crafted (and for which it earned tens of millions of dollars in legal fees) ensured that banks and other “secured” creditors were fully paid, while city pensioners and municipal departments faced cuts.1 Orr embarked on a privatization crusade, even seeking to privatize the city’s water department. He failed, but soon he leased the department to a regional compact, wresting control of the city’s water from its residents for the first time in nearly two centuries.

In early 2014, amid Orr’s assaults, the water department “began the most aggressive water shutoff policy yet,” Rector writes. Over the next five years, as rate hikes made water increasingly unaffordable, this necessity was shut off for at least 300,000 people. Epidemiologists noted a spike in water-borne disease and gastrointestinal ailments in areas affected by the shutoffs, which were disproportionately poor and Black.

Meanwhile, in 2013 an emergency manager in Flint, seeking to cut costs, led the city to switch its water source from piped-in treated water to the Flint River. Because the river was high in corrosive matter, toxic lead and copper began to leach from pipes, leading to Flint’s water poisoning crisis. Yet this problem was not confined to Flint. Rector tracks how cuts to state lead-abatement programs, as well as the Detroit emergency manager’s outsourcing of its school maintenance and engineering to private contractors, exacerbated toxic levels of lead and copper in that city’s water supply as well.

Rector traces how redlining, white flight, banking deregulation, disinvestment, austerity, welfare reform, voter disenfranchisement, and ultimately the “suspension of democracy in Michigan’s Black-majority cities” combined to create the “interconnected water disasters” for hundreds of thousands of people. By 2014, half of Michigan’s Black residents—but just 2 percent of its white residents—lived in cities governed by unelected emergency managers. “The dehydration of Detroit and the poisoning of Flint were the logical outcomes of policies that prioritized the repayment of toxic debt over the lives of the urban poor,” he concludes.

Toxic Debt is an outstanding book, but it would be wrong to overlook its own debt to decades of pathbreaking scholarship. In the 1970s and 1980s activist-historians excavated the long-buried histories of Black labor radicalism in Detroit; in the 1990s and early 2000s, scholars used Detroit as a microcosm to understand how racism made and unmade American cities. More recently, journalists and academics have mined new archives to tell “people’s histories” of Black and working-class Detroiters. Rector’s work builds on generations of scholarly labor, marrying the most influential urban and labor histories with a quickly growing library of books that trace the genealogies of environmental racism and injustice.

Still, omissions remain, including the legacy of colonization and indigenous resistance to it. Early in Toxic Debt, Rector describes Ojibwe individuals and activists in the 1900s and 1910s asserting territorial claims to Belle Isle, an island surrounded by the Detroit River, but they then largely disappear from his book. Such neglect of indigenous history is most certainly not Rector’s alone; while recent books by scholars like Nick Estes and Dina Gilio-Whitaker have done vital work in recovering the legacies of indigenous environmental justice activism, much is left to be brought to light.2 A partial explanation for this absence is undoubtedly the limitations imposed by what survives in conventional archives. Unions like the UAW left behind meeting minutes, correspondence, even their own newspapers. Indigenous communities resisting American empire or enslaved families striving for clean water rarely left traces in written records, and almost never in their own words.

Nonetheless, Rector’s book is relentlessly clear-eyed in its focus on contemporary injustice and resistance. His final substantive chapter describes the strategies employed by Detroit activists in the mid-2000s and the 2010s, including their creation of alternative food, energy, and water systems. His epilogue examines the Green New Deal in historical perspective, spotlighting the increasing support for it among industrial union members, and ends with a brief but illuminating discussion of climate justice organizing in Detroit. “It is difficult to survey the human suffering in frontline communities,” he writes, “without concluding that decarbonization must be implemented synergistically with policies that address the ongoing crises of poverty, inequality, and racial disparities in the United States.”

Robert Bullard—one of the environmental justice movement’s pioneers—recently noted that four decades ago, “the concept of environmental justice was a mere footnote.” Now it’s “a headline.” This is emblematic of the enormous potential—and danger—of the moment in which we’re living. Intentionally or not, Rector’s conclusion echoes the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which argued a few years ago that our only hope of avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of climate change will require transforming the toxic world economy at a speed and a scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”