There is a lot that is unknown about the deadly fire that began in Grenfell Tower in the North Kensington area of West London during the early hours of the 14th of June. The total number of fatalities is still being calculated. The precise details about the fire’s causes and enabling conditions will be revealed in a forthcoming public inquiry. But it is clear that this terrible fire is part of a larger story about unevenly precarious lives in today’s unequal cities.
There are aspects of urban environments and everyday life that can kill, either swiftly through catastrophic failure or ecological disaster, or slowly through illness or poor health. But the chances of being subjected to these conditions are distributed unevenly. Inequality is built into the urban fabric and infrastructure, such that many working class and poor people, and people of colour, are subjected to deadly risks from which the wealthy are protected.
The Grenfell Tower fire needs to be seen in the context of similar events such as the floods following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as well as other disasters worldwide, such as the 2011 gas pipeline explosion that killed dozens in an informal neighbourhood in Nairobi, Kenya, or the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013.
These disasters—distilled versions of innumerable everyday forms of structural violence—reveal the deadly inequalities of safety and security that characterise contemporary urban life. Grenfell Tower is a social housing block that, while far from monolithic, was home to large numbers of poor and working class tenants, many from ethnic minority backgrounds. In New Orleans, poorer African-American neighbourhoods were the hardest hit by the flooding and the inadequate government response; in some parts of the city, the Katrina-related mortality rate for black New Orleanians was as much as four times higher than their white counterparts. In Flint, the city’s disproportionately poor and black residents were exposed to dangerous levels of toxicity through the municipal water supply.
In all of these cases, working class and poor communities were living and working in conditions that were conducive to disaster. They routinely faced a level of risk that would never be tolerated for wealthier city-dwellers. Theorists like Imogen Tyler and Henry Giroux have argued that the neoliberal order produces a distinctive “politics of disposability,” where the state and dominant classes treat particular populations as expendable. It is not hard to see how the uneven maintenance or neglect of the infrastructures of everyday life constantly reproduces this condition, as the means of safety are monopolised by the wealthy while working class and poor city dwellers are disregarded.
The other thing that links the tragedy of Grenfell Tower with those in New Orleans, Flint and elsewhere is that they could have been prevented. It had been know for years that the levees in New Orleans might not be able to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. And Flint residents as well as local officials had been urgently exposing health problems caused by toxic water for more than a year before the scandal hit the front pages. But the authorities declined to act.
The same pattern occurred in Grenfell Tower. Residents had been issuing dire warnings that the building’s management organization was “playing with fire” and that a catastrophe could result. But they were rebuffed, and reportedly accused of harassment and defamation by local government for calling attention to the problem in the first place.
What this shows is that the deadliness of urban inequality is enabled and compounded by the politics of agenda setting. Wealthy city dwellers enjoy an outsized ability to define what counts as an urgent problem, while poor communities struggle to be heard. Decision-makers tend to come from privileged backgrounds, so they see the world through the eyes of the well-off and discount others’ protests. The result is that risks to the lives of poor people and people of colour are not taken seriously by those in power.
All of these tragedies are symptomatic of a broader process of redistributing risk and vulnerability. Those who control wealth and power are becoming ever more adept at protecting themselves from the perils that the rest of us face. Living in gated communities with private security infrastructure, and enjoying forms of global mobility that allow them to escape from dangerous situations as need be, today’s off-shored elites are able to dodge many of the problems caused by climate change, political instability, and inadequate regulation.
The poor have long faced elevated risk of death at work and at home. But generations of activists struggling around housing, labour, and other issues won safety standards, inspection regimes, public health measures, and other ways to mitigate and reduce the threat of illness and premature mortality. Yet the trend in recent decades has been to roll back regulations and download risk back onto individuals, often relying on market mechanisms, producing historically and socially specific forms of precarity and disposability. When security is privatised and safety is increasingly monopolised by the powerful, the relatively powerless are the ones who suffer. Grenfell Tower, like other recent disasters, is a chilling illustration of how inequality kills.
David Madden is an assistant professor in the Sociology Department and the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics. He can be found on Twitter at @davidjmadden.