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Mutual water systems and the formation of racial inequality in Los Angeles County

Justin McBride
University of California Los Angeles Department of Urban Planning, Los Angeles, United States of America, jgmcbride1@ucla.edu

ABSTRACT: Environmental justice scholarship has indicated that a deeper contextualisation of histories and institutions is key to moving beyond simple perpetrator–victim paradigms of environmental injustice. Such contextualisation calls for recentring the state and the firm in analysis. This study answers that call by exploring five small private non-profit drinking water systems in the Los Angeles County communities of Maywood and Cudahy. Using data from Internal Revenue Service tax returns and various publicly available documents, I argue that the five firms are deeply implicated in the ongoing production of racial difference. The internal dynamics of the firms exhibit corruption and the stifling of community concerns, even while at times the firms provided unclean water. The state has supported these conditions both tacitly and actively at several scales. Even though the firms are not typical large for-profit investor-owned utilities, under the processes of racial capitalism their unique structure has enabled them to participate in the formation of environmental injustice and has made them an important part of the mosaic of forces contributing to overall environmental racism in the region.

KEYWORDS: Mutual water company, racial capitalism, corruption, social movements, Los Angeles, USA