All is not well here in Michigan, and some people have noticed: noticed that the city of Flint has been drinking, cooking with, and bathing in poisoned water for over a year, and that the city of Detroit’s children have been attending crumbling and neglected schools for much longer. This sudden influx of attention has generated an enormous quantity of discourse around the state of my state. One of the most thoughtful structural analyses, written by the blog Third Coast Conspiracy, is “Democracy, Disposability, and the Flint Water Crisis.” This piece redirects conversation away from the predominating focus on the shortcomings of Rick Snyder, Michigan’s governor (although they are many and his criticisms well-deserved) and on the increasing reliance upon emergency management and privatization that has enabled and exacerbated the government’s failure to provide basic services in Detroit and Flint. Naturally, these are important aspects of the political climate that allowed such appalling neglect to be sanctioned and executed in Michigan, but Third Coast Conspiracy situates them within the context of a broader movement to gut the infrastructure of and redistribute resources away from marginalized (usually urban) communities in order to sustain and serve their privileged (usually suburban) neighbors. Although Detroit in particular has become infamous for what it lost, thanks to the wide dissemination of images of empty blocks and burned-out houses, those losses are less often discussed or understood as manifestations of a deliberate and concerted effort to dispose of surplus populations. And yet it is increasingly obvious that amidst crisis upon crisis, we can no longer excuse bad policies as the careless errors of bad politicians, or write them off as aberrations in a system that usually functions as it should to maintain the lives and livelihoods of the humans inside of it. It simply doesn’t. When workers aren’t needed to work for capitalism, they become a burden, a strike against its profit margin, and hence:
Local, regional, and state governments are removing the basic, infrastructural supports that are necessary for the reproduction of life. As a consequence, residents of cities like Flint and Detroit, in particular black and immigrant populations, have been subjected to increasing vulnerability in forms like declining life expectancy and appalling infant mortality. “Disposability” and “surplus population” sound like abstract concepts, but they’re a tangible, visceral reality for folks on the ground in Flint. “We’re like disposable people here,” one resident told the Toronto Star the other day. “We’re not even human here, I guess.”
The paradoxical logic of disposability was really thrown into sharp relief for me by a couple of case studies. I recently spotted this flyer for an anti-abortion panel entitled “Unborn Black Lives Matter” scheduled to take place next month at Wayne State, the Detroit university where I study things like exactly what kind of destruction environmental toxins can level against a human cell, and the atomic mass of lead.
This name is a sickening riff on Black Lives Matter, a movement whose fundamental purpose is to reclaim the bodily autonomy of those from whom it has been stolen by a thousand forms of violence — police brutality has been a focal point, but sexual coercion and forced reproduction are also integral tools of white supremacy. First case study. A week later I read that presidential candidate and far-right ideologue Ted Cruz has decided to donate bottled water to the people of Flint — but only, in the words of Cruz’s Michigan state director Wendy Lynn Day, to those who are also “expecting moms and moms of little ones.” And it’s not just any of Flint’s maternal citizens who stand to benefit from the Cruz campaign’s largesse; the water will be donated to crisis pregnancy centers in the area. “Crisis pregnancy center” is a euphemism for a facility, often religious, that provides free or low-cost ultrasounds and “counseling,” which is invariably designed to discourage women from choosing abortion. What this means is that the only people Cruz has deemed important enough to receive a substance that is necessary for survival are those who might be in the position of deciding whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy, and more specifically still, those who are seeking services at a place that will attempt to dissuade them from the latter. (And their children, who may presumably also grow up to become pregnant people.) “Mixed” isn’t really a strong enough word to describe the message that Cruz is sending to those whose lives are actively under siege from the subtle and insidious expansion of disposability, and whose bodies already bear its damage, but whom he also expects to reproduce. If you follow this scenario — in which vital commodities can be withheld or distributed on a whim — to its logical conclusion, it actually begins to seem like not so much an expectation as an imperative. Cruz demands that women give birth while simultaneously perpetuating a paradigm that denies them and their offspring the most rudimentary exigencies to sustain life and therefore to continue to reproduce. Paradoxical logic; second case study.
As I’ve written before, I provide abortion care at a clinic in the metro Detroit area. This has afforded me insight into the stories and histories of people who are pregnant and considering termination that I otherwise wouldn’t have access to. In keeping with findings from the Guttmacher Institute, our average patient is an unmarried, 20-something woman of color with one or more children and an income near or below the poverty line. Many of them come from Detroit and a smaller but still significant number from Flint. This population that I care for, and care deeply about, is made up of precisely the same people whose lives are considered disposable by the apparatuses of our state (and State). Ironically, the term “disposability” often comes up in anti-abortion rhetoric. In those contexts, its meaning is exemplified by the flyer I saw at Wayne State, which tacitly accuses Black women of hypocrisy if they protest the killing of the children they have while declining to bring more into the kind of place that would sanction their killing — see: Tamir Rice. This relies upon one of the most common misunderstandings about abortion, which gives rise to one of the most asinine and condescending arguments against it: that people who are pregnant somehow fail to understand what pregnancy means and what it means to end a pregnancy. The law requires that we counsel women about their decision, after they have reviewed state-mandated written and verbal information about parenting, prenatal care, and development at the fetus’s gestational age. As if our patients didn’t already know what’s inside their uteruses and inside their hearts. Trust me, they know. Even a 12-year-old knows, even a primagravida, and no one knows better than the majority of our patients, who have already borne children. I believe in this work because I believe that people who terminate pregnancies do so not out of desperation or selfishness or immaturity, but out of compassion. The onslaught of evidence as to the callous and uncaring treatment in Flint and the fact that the government didn’t begin to make even the slightest gestures towards caring until public outrage demanded some action — the revealing and devastating photos and videos of decrepit Detroit schools — all of this has only served to further convince me of my patients’ compassion. Like I said, these women intuitively know the stakes of their decision, and intuitively understand the realities of their disposability in a way I had to work to comprehend. Black people, undocumented people, poor people, and disabled people are all attuned to the fact that their lives are implicitly and explicitly made to not matter. They’re aware of what it feels like to be rendered so unimportant that it takes over a year for anyone to notice that their water has been poisoned, and so insignificant that they are obligated to send their kids to be “educated” in buildings full of black mold but devoid of textbooks or adequately compensated teachers and staff. They are subject to the “declining life expectancy” mentioned by Third Coast Conspiracy, and arrive at our office with sky-high blood pressure, early-onset cardiovascular disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, trauma, and a thousand other sequelae of chronic stress, insufficient resources, and inadequate primary and preventative medical interventions.
That’s what they’re choosing for their unborn progeny to not endure. It isn’t simple to get an abortion, and it usually isn’t easy either. While some patients change their minds or require intensive options counseling, most express a high level of confidence in their decisions. They are assured, firm, calm; secure in their hearts and minds that they are doing the right thing. But they’re also grieving the failings of a world that makes it the right thing, and mourning what could have been were it a different kind of world, and to have watched them grieve and mourn for potentials they love and realities they hate has shown me the kind of generosity and humanity that politicians like Snyder and Cruz can only perform a skewed and empty imitation of. You can look at a woman weeping on the operating table and either imagine that she’s making a mistake, because you also imagine that you understand her tears better than she does, or you can trust her to cry and still be sure of what she says she knows is best.
These crises in Flint and Detroit have come to a head in such a way that it’s easy for me to combine them here, but they’re also historically and structurally related as symptoms of the State’s abandonment of marginalized people. A driving force behind the emotional tenor of the public response — shock, outrage, sadness, disgust — has been the fact that, in both cases, children are the primary victims. The schools’ students are obviously young people; in Flint, the lead that leached into the water from corroded pipes carries with it vastly graver and more profound consequences for brains and bodies that are still developing. As these topics occupy more of my attention, and converge in the media I’m exposed to, I can’t stop thinking of a passage from Cruising Utopia, by José Esteban Muñoz. He’s responding to a line of thought that had become popular among queer theorists, the rejection of “reproductive futurity,” or the fixation on children and the heteronormative rituals of their creation that promote a cultural imperative to make babies and fetishize that which is yet to come. Muñoz acknowledges that, although these criticisms have validity, they fall short in characterizing childhood as a sanitized bastion of innocence, occupied only by transcendental “privileged white babies” (94). He reminds us that “[t]he future is only the stuff of some kids. Racialized kids, queer kids, are not the sovereign princes of futurity” (95). These facts demand that we refuse to “hand over futurity to normative white reproductive futurity” but rather to “call on a utopian political imagination that will enable us to glimpse another time and place: a “not-yet” where queer youths of color actually get to grow up” (95-96). I’m as familiar as anyone with the pull of nihilism, negativity, and abjection; it’s incredibly liberating to reject obligatory optimism, and fall instead into the warm embrace of a pessimism that has always come more naturally to me.
And yet I feel compelled, at this particular place and in this particular time, to resist the urge. Third Coast Conspiracy concludes their post: “…we are interested in thinking about what it would take to reproduce communities, or for communities to reproduce themselves, without relying on capital and the state, to create autonomous infrastructures of social reproduction that do not continuously subject black, immigrant, and marginalized white populations to premature death.” Like Muñoz’s prescription for a “utopian political imagination,” this interest depends upon an engagement with fantasy, and some kind of faith, and the capacity for belief. Queerness is a site of alternative models for the reproduction of communities; so too are anticapitalist movements, antiracist movements, antiableist movements. And because the issue at hand is what it looks like and means to care for children, and because the patients who come to me seeking abortions are implicated in this struggle, I will argue that their decisions are a form of the refusal to concede territory to Cruz’s “normative white reproductive futurity.” May we all think about what it would take for my patients and their communities to get to grow up.
Muñoz, J. E. (2009). Cruising utopia: The then and there of queer futurity. New York: New York University Press.