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A Brief History Of How Racism Shaped Interstate Highways

Some of the country's highways were built through existing Black and brown communities. President Biden's infrastructure plan aims to address racial inequities.
Richard Baker
Corbis via Getty Images
Some of the country's highways were built through existing Black and brown communities. President Biden's infrastructure plan aims to address racial inequities.

In his $2 trillion plan to improve America's infrastructure, President Biden is promising to address the racism ingrained in historical transportation and urban planning.

Biden's plan includes $20 billion for a program that would "reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments," according to the White House. It also looks to target "40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities."

Planners of the interstate highway system, which began to take shape after the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, routed some highways directly, and sometimes purposefully, through Black and brown communities. In some instances, the government took homes by eminent domain.

It left a deep psychological scar on neighborhoods that lost homes, churches and schools, says Deborah Archer, a professor at the New York University School of Law and national board president of the American Civil Liberties Union. Archer recently wrote for the Iowa Law Review about how transportation policy affected the development of Black communities.

She says the president will face major challenges in trying to rectify historical inequities.

"What is not clear is whether and how that money will be distributed in a way that will address the racial inequalities that are built into our transportation system and our infrastructure," she tells NPR's Morning Edition.

"I think it's also important for us to think about how we will shift culture within the relevant agencies so that white middle-class and affluent neighborhoods will not continue to be favored at the expense of communities of color, producing lopsided and skewed patterns of infrastructure development."

Here are highlights from Archer's interview with NPR:

Why would officials have targeted thriving vibrant communities? Was it just because the people who lived there were Black and or brown?

Some of the time, yes, that was actually the case. The highways were being built just as courts around the country were striking down traditional tools of racial segregation. So, for example, courts were striking down the use of racial zoning to keep Black people in certain communities and white people in other communities. And so the highway development popped up at a time when the idea, the possibility of integration in housing was on the horizon. And so very intentionally, highways were sometimes built right on the formal boundary lines that we saw used during racial zoning. Sometimes community members asked the highway builders to create a barrier between their community and encroaching Black communities.

As I read your paper, I was astonished to realize how many places this happened. Was there any successful resistance?

There was certainly successful resistance. We can see good examples in Greenwich Village in New York. There were examples from Washington, D.C., which is where the phrase "no white men's roads through Black men's homes" came from. That was the rallying cry for folks in D.C. who resisted it. And there was also a successful effort in New Orleans.

But I think it's important to point out the most successful efforts to stop the highways were not those that focused on racial justice or those that were put in place to protect Black communities. The people who were most successful were the ones that focused on environmental justice and protecting parks and their communities in that way.

If this initiative works, in what ways do you see the country being different in five or 10 years?

I think that right now, we can see that race frequently explains which communities receive the benefits of our transportation system and infrastructure and which communities were forced to host the burdens.

Our transportation systems have really led to racial disparities and discrimination, which are reinforced daily from highways, roads, bridges to sidewalks and public transit. We make it harder for Black people and other people of color to access and take advantage of opportunities.

So I would hope that at the end of this project — at the end of this plan — as you say in five years, that race would not be a way to explain who gets the benefits and who gets the burdens. It would not be a way to explain who has access and who doesn't.

Marc Rivers and Simone Popperl produced and edited the audio interview. Digital News intern Farah Eltohamy produced for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.

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