Republicans were quick to pile on criticism over the weekend of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s comments that the U.S. highway system is inherently racist, though experts have been urging Americans to think about how racism impacted the construction of our highways for years.
In an interview last week with The Grio, a news website that focuses on Black issues, Buttigieg claimed there is “racism physically built into” United States highways, drawing scorn from Republicans who dismissed the suggestion out of hand.
“Highways are not racist,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said in a tweet Sunday, while the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization, tweeted out Buttigieg’s quote and said “This is not parody.”
Buttigieg went on to claim that the highways were “built at the expense of communities of color” in places all across the country, including Washington, D.C, Philadelphia, and New York.
Maps showing the racial makeup of American cities today show that white and minority neighborhoods are often divided by physical infrastructure projects such as railroads and highways.
“The political alignments are predictable” but this is an “old” issue, former Oberlin College history professor Clayton Koppes told Forbes in an interview Monday.
Interstate highway systems “were built through areas where people of color and lower income people lived” to create a “wall” that would, in effect, segregate white people from minority communities, Koppes said.
Koppes noted it was easier for officials to build highways in minority communities because the people there had less “political power” to fight eminent domain.
“Secretary Buttiegieg is absolutely correct,” Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse told Forbes Monday. “The history of highway construction shows that race was a significant factor in the placement of new roadways in the 1950s and 1960s. New interstate highways weren’t built on a blank landscape. They had to be routed through existing neighborhoods, which were largely destroyed in the process of construction.”
What To Watch For
Biden has proposed $1.9 trillion in infrastructure spending, including $20 billion for an initiative that would “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments,” according to a White House fact sheet. Additionally, 40% of the package would fund projects in disadvantaged communities.
Republicans are lining up to oppose the new spending, with many accusing Democrats of broadening the definition of what “infrastructure” actually constitutes, possibly contributing to the backlash towards Buttigieg’s comments. “The latest liberal wish list the White House has decided to label ‘infrastructure’ is a major missed opportunity by this administration,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently said. “This plan is not about rebuilding America’s backbone,” the Kentucky senator said. “Less than 6% of this massive proposal goes to roads and bridges.”
The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, signed by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, authorized the construction of more than 41,000 miles of highway in the U.S., the largest public works program at that time. Under the terms of the legislation, the federal government picked up 90% of the tab, while states kicked in the final 10%. However, state and local officials were charged with planning where the road would be built, just as courts across the country were striking down racist zoning laws. The new infrastructure initiatives allowed cities to continue segregationist policies while flying under the radar. The practice was not confined to the south, but happened in cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and Washington, according to the New York Times.
One highway that could be targeted by Biden’s infrastructure plan is Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans. The highway was built in the 1960s and sliced right through a predominantly Black neighborhood along N. Claiborne avenue, wrecking the makeup of the area. Activists have attempted to bring down the highway for years, and now Biden’s plan could answer their wishes. The road was one of few projects specifically listed on the White House plan detailing the “American Jobs Plan.”
What does a traffic jam in Atlanta have to do with segregation? Quite a lot. (New York Times Magazine)