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Slow Transparency and the Localization of Lead in the Newark Water Crisis

This paper examines official responses to lead contamination in the early years of the Newark Water Crisis and residents’ demands for transparency within and beyond the framework of corruption. In 2017, the City of Newark released two advisories about elevated lead levels in the water supplies of public schools and later in people’s homes. Mailed press releases and automated calls assured residents that officials were taking appropriate action to address seemingly isolated malfunctions in buildings that were not up to code. Just short of a year later, however, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), together with the Newark Education Workers Caucus, filed a lawsuit against the City for “fail[ing] to act on the dangerously high levels of lead in Newark’s drinking water.” Starting with the detection of elevated lead levels in school fountains in 2016, this paper examines the City of Newark’s treatment of early reports of water contamination and the strategy of localization used to refute claims of an impending crisis and reject residents’ comparisons to the Flint Water Crisis. It also contends with residents’ waning trust of formal politics following city tactics, articulated in suspicions of government corruption as well as critiques of slow transparency, or information made available when the damage of prolonged exposure has already been done. In so doing, I consider transparency as a temporal field (slow truth) in addition to a visual field (hidden truth) and its implications on the sociopolitical imaginaries of those affected by contamination.


Kessie Alexandre’s research organizes around questions of public health risk and ethics; environmental racism; climate justice and the social implications of climate change adaptation; Black geographies and diaspora; and the politics and ethics of infrastructure. Alexandre’s research has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the American Council for Learned Societies, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the Princeton Environmental Institute and Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. She published recent work in Geoforum and Current Anthropology.

Her first book project, “Floods and Fountains,” is an ethnographic study of water insecurity and civic participation in Newark, New Jersey, which uncovers concurrent processes of racialization and toxification in a period of industrial waterway pollution, climate change vulnerability, and tap water contamination. Looking beyond the Newark Lead Crisis, the project examines how residents have mobilized around unsafe water flows since the Black Power Movement and how water insecurity continues to shape political subjectivities and social relations in the moment of ongoing crisis.

Her other research projects include a long-term study of water and sanitation access in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake and cholera outbreak. This second project reframes water and land access for Haitians from disaster response to legacies of dispossession and ongoing infrastructural development. Lastly, she is writing on the figure of the “climate refugee” in contemporary discourse and its convergence with racialization at borders in various parts of the Americas.