Rashida Tlaib’s workplace is a hostile environment.
The 44-year-old Muslim congresswoman from Michigan, re-elected by a landslide last November, must deal with structural and individual racism in Congress while working to represent one of the country’s poorest and most diverse districts.
“There’s always a sense that some colleagues don’t want me to exist in this institution, but [also] that this institution wasn’t built for someone like myself to be here. As soon as I got here I felt it … [Congress] wasn’t ready for me nor were many colleagues who continue to enable an institution to exist where a woman of Muslim faith, a Palestinian, a child of immigrants, is not seen as equal.”
Tlaib was first elected in 2018, and, together with fellow Democrat Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, became one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress – almost 230 years after the legislature was founded.
Tlaib and Omar joined forces with two other progressive first-timers, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, to push for transformational structural changes to eradicate racial inequalities in health, housing, immigration, education, jobs and the environment.
As a result, members of the so-called “Squad” sometimes clashed with old-school party leadership and were attacked by Trump and his allies who used thinly veiled racist rhetoric to stir up hatred against the women of color inside and outside Washington.
The drip drip of everyday hostility ramped up after the attack on the Capitol on 6 January by a pro-Trump mob egged on by the Republican senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and others, including Trump himself. The attackers included people waving Confederate flags and members of far-right racist groups.
“The attack on the Capitol is a constant thought. I cannot walk around this complex without a sense of fear, and what angers many of us but also creates sadness, is that this could have been avoided. The attack happened because we have not faced the ills of our nation, we’ve not taken a serious look at white supremacy in our country … these attacks happen in communities of color day after day and will continue to happen without intentional aggressive action to stop these violent groups.”
“People are traumatized because of hate, bigotry and lies,” said Tlaib.
Hostile work conditions can lead to stress, health problems and burnout, but Tlaib insists that the Squad – which has since added two more members in Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman – will not be intimidated or silenced despite racism and falsehoods from new colleagues such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican conspiracy theorist and Trump loyalist from Georgia.
“It can be extremely difficult, but I try to outwork the hate … [to focus on] on getting millions of Americans access to water and pushing back against corporate greed that wants to privatise that water. I try to expose the white supremacy and structural racism within policies that allow my neighbors to live in poverty, their children to live among blight, schools closings and dirty water. I’m here to speak truth and use this office to elevate some of those truths.”
“And even though I’m here with my bullhorn, many, many want to rip that bullhorn from my hands and bully me through their racist comments and actions. This place wasn’t built for me, but we’re here, we’re not going anywhere, we’re growing,” she added.
For Tlaib, it’s the harsh reality of environmental racism endured by so many of her constituents that drives her to push for change in Washington.
She represents Michigan’s 13th congressional district, which includes the city of Detroit and the state’s most polluted zip code thanks to a toxic mix of contaminants spewing out of every industrial plant imaginable – steel mills, coal-fired power plants, gas flares, a salt mine, a wastewater treatment plant and a huge oil refinery.
Here, in the south-west outskirts of the city, mostly black low-income households suffer disproportionate rates of the whole gamut of medical conditions including cancers, asthma, heart disease, miscarriages, birth defects and cognitive impairments. Air pollution kills more people in Detroit than gun violence, and has probably contributed to the high Covid death toll.
Tlaib, like many other progressives who endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential candidate race, said she was pleasantly surprised by Biden’s environmental justice and economic recovery plan. The ambitious clean energy blueprint includes key elements of the Green New Deal, which Biden refused to endorse by name, such as tough action on corporate polluters and promises that 40% of clean energy investment will be in frontline communities like Tlaib’s, which have for so long been treated like sacrifice zones.
She recalled one constituent, an elderly woman of color, saying that it felt like the government greenlighted companies that profited from poisoning the community.
“We are so incredibly thrilled that there’s aggressive language about halting investment in fossil fuels. Of course I want to see more – we’re working really hard to make sure that much of the vision in the Green New Deal will continue through other policies and we’re absolutely thrilled that at least we’re moving in that direction, a lot of big steps in the plan.”
Tlaib credits veteran environmental justice advocates for making sure racial justice is at the heart of Biden’s clean energy plan.
Detroit is also where America’s water affordability scandal first emerged in 2014 after the city implemented a mass shutoff program leaving tens of thousands of mostly low-income black residents without running water due to unpaid bills – a policy the UN described as “contrary to human rights”.
A landmark investigation by the Guardian last year found that spiraling water rates over the past decade have left millions of Americans facing shutoffs and foreclosures.
Tlaib realised the affordability crisis was unfolding in her backyard after reading a story about an elderly couple, using melted snow they collected in buckets to flush the toilet. “I just thought that was wrong and inhumane especially in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. How can we let people live like this? People have been left without safe, clean, affordable water simply because they cannot afford the increased water rates … it’s dehumanising.”
Detroit was the first place to order a moratorium on water shutoffs last year in an effort to curtail the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus, but at least 186 million Americans are at risk of losing their water supply for overdue bills.
Last month, Tlaib and fellow Michigan congresswoman Debbie Dingell reintroduced the Emergency Water is a Human Right Act, which would mandate a national moratorium on shutoffs and create a $1.5bn fund for states and tribes to use for struggling low-income households to ensure taps stay on during the pandemic.
“People are getting public health guidance to wash their hands for 20 seconds but don’t have running water. I am their lobbyist. I don’t have corporate experience but I have their stories and the human impact on their lives and I’m trying to bring this to the attention of President Biden and Vice-President Harris.
The legislation would require utilities which benefit from federal aid to reconnect disconnected households. Before the pandemic, one in 20 households were disconnected for unpaid bills annually, according to research by Food and Water Watch.
In sharp contrast, federal aid to help low-income households pay energy bills has been around for years – in part thanks to corporate lobbying, says Tlaib. Water, on the other hand, is still mostly provided by public utilities, though advocates warn that small, struggling systems are being gobbled up by private firms.
“We have not been as aggressive about access to water as we should have been … my biggest worry is that it may be intentional because the hope is to privatize it, hand it over to for-profit corporations where the problem will get 10 times worse,” Tlaib said.
America’s water crisis is not just about affordability. It’s also about safety with chemicals such as lead, PFAS, nitrates and many others contaminating drinking water sources nationwide. The problems are interrelated: federal investment in water systems peaked in 1977, leaving public utilities increasingly reliant on customer revenue to pay for infrastructure upgrades and climate mitigation costs.
Tlaib recognises that the proposed bill, which she says has the support of the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer (and Harris when she was a senator), is a short-term solution to a complex, worsening problem.
“We have a water crisis in our country. We have to get to the root cause of water affordability and water shutoffs, but they [Biden and Harris] are so focused on the pandemic that they must move with a sense of urgency to create this fund so that we can stop the hemorrhaging … My long-term goal is to make sure water stays accessible.”