Highways And Critical Race Theory

Opponents of (a dramatically-mischaracterized) Critical Race Theory are essentially arguing against the recognition of just how deeply racism has affected American law and culture. They argue–and some undoubtedly believe–that civil rights laws created a level playing field, and that it’s now up to minority folks to stop complaining and make use of their equal opportunities.

The problem with that belief–even if we leave aside the sociological effects of two hundred  plus years of history–is that it is wrong.

As a society, we are just beginning to appreciate the extent to which racial animus has been baked into our laws and customs. (I was shocked to read The Color of the Law, for example, which documented how deeply the federal government was implicated in redlining and the segregation of America.) Only because I was involved in an effort to modify plans for rebuilding Indiana’s interstates within Indianapolis’ downtown did I become aware of the degree to which the original placement of those highways was the result of racist motives and assumptions.

Fifty-plus years ago, when the interstate system was built, entire neighborhoods were razed to make room for them. Homes, businesses, and urban amenities were destroyed, and the highways  became barriers between neighborhoods, cutting people off from job opportunities and retail options.

Subsequent environmental studies have shown that air pollution from highways negatively impacts student outcomes in nearby schools.

All of these negative impacts fell most heavily on Black neighborhoods and businesses, and that was definitely not accidental. As an architect recently wrote in The Washington Post about North Claiborne Street, formerly a bustling corridor in New Orleans:

There were many masters on North Claiborne, and Black New Orleanians were the beneficiaries of their talents. There were doctors, lawyers, retailers, insurance agents, teachers, musicians, restaurateurs and other small-business owners. The avenue stretched across the Tremé and 7th Ward neighborhoods, and in the Jim Crow era, it served as the social and financial center of the Black community.

The government tore up the avenue nearly 60 years ago, burying the heart of Tremé and the 7th Ward so the Claiborne Expressway, part of Interstate 10’s transcontinental span, could run through the city. New Orleans wasn’t alone. The same kind of thing happened across the country; Black communities like those in St. Paul, Minn., Orlando, Detroit, Richmond, Baltimore, Oakland, Calif., and Syracuse, N.Y., were leveled or hollowed out to make way for federal highway building. The Biden administration hopes to use the massive infrastructure bill now working its way through Congress to help remedy the harm done by these hideous scars, to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments,” in President Biden’s words. It’s not clear how much of the trillion dollars that lawmakers are contemplating will actually make it to places like North Claiborne. But those places aren’t just abstract line items in a budget resolution to people like me; they’re lived realities — vivid examples of how racist planning destroyed communities of color in America.

Our aging infrastructure now requires repair and replacement, and a number of cities have recognized the harms done by those original siting decisions, They have also recognized   how racist assumptions–and all too often, conscious racial animus–prompted those decisions, and have moved to ameliorate them. (Indiana’s DOT, it will not surprise you to learn, has thus far resisted similar efforts to fundamentally redesign those highways and reconnect neighborhoods.)

There are numerous reasons to rethink the country’s interstates, and most of those reasons have nothing to do with race. City centers have changed, historic districts have proliferated, we know more about the negative effects of highway pollution, etc. But we also shouldn’t forget why so many of those highways were built where they were.

As the author of the Post essay concluded:

I do not understand why we can’t look at these infrastructure relics the way we look at monuments to white supremacy, such as statues of Confederate heroes and obelisks apotheosizing the Lost Cause. The statues are hurtful reminders of the times when Black people and Native Americans were seen as commodities or nuisances that needed removal. But urban highways are more than a reminder; they continuously inflict economic, social and environmental pain on neighborhoods like mine. Like other monuments to racism, they must be removed. The nation has a chance to support the rebuilding of disenfranchised and fractured communities and make them whole. It won’t be easy, but I hope we will seize the moment.

We don’t look at highways as monuments to White Supremacy, because we don’t know–and haven’t learned–how White Supremacy influenced–determined– their placement. It’s just one more aspect of our current society whose origins we prefer not to understand.


  1. An answer to the question about removing the purposeful barriers of highways and infrastructure based in racial animus as we are now removing the idiotic statues to losers is simple. In my opinion, it’s simply because the statues don’t represent anything economical or interrupt any revenue streams.

    Cynical? You bet! What other word can describe our white-oriented everything run by the white guys who cling to their illusion of being in charge and having all the power?

  2. We’ll put up a monument to recognize what happened and spend the money how they see fit—lip service with a media show for the 6 o’clock news. Then be done with it.

    I’m watching all the George Floyd movements puttering out of steam as well. They’ve turned over the energy of the movement to the “black leaders” who’ve gained some standing in the community who don’t want to lose that standing by causing any more waves within the white community; they’ve managed to land a seat at the table. They worked hard to get that seat, and they aren’t about to give it up over a concrete highway. They’ve been assimilated, so they think.

    I’ve seen it time and time again in our community. The Democratic Party is absolutely masterful at how this has been done. Look at the Antoinettes, Barack and Michelle Obama, who just had a “Let them eat cake birthday party” hobnobbing with Wall Street’s wealthiest. The DNC got Obama quickly out in front of the “defund the police” movement. He killed it as quickly as he killed Occupy Wall Street when they told Barrack that he was the problem.

    Muncie quickly created a Deputy Mayor position for a black Republican (he’d been a lifelong Democrat but flipped for the city elections because of the Trump movement) councilman during the height of the BLM movement. But, he told me, “I never saw it coming!”

    Needless to say, the energy of the movement died, getting nothing from the police department. Nothing.

    The White Oligarchy handpicked those “black leaders” and put them in charge of certain tasks. I’ve been tuning in to all the follow-up meetings and zero progress from the “leaders.”

    They’ve been doing that since the days of slavery to keep the other slaves in line. They do it with the white people too. It’s hilarious to watch. Marx spelled it out like a Shakespeare play. The Dilbert Cartoon was based on one of these principles, which takes place in an office setting.

    It’s an arranged society by the ones who have the Gold.

  3. Highways may have become barriers between neighborhoods but we must face the fact that, in today’s more integrated neighborhoods there are racial assumptions made by all races which need to be overcome. Until we can know one another face-to-face in our neighborhoods, in schools and on the job, we can not expect to be aware of or understand the larger issues separating us or their cause. Racism is a fact of life; and this country was built on the backs of racism which has supported the economics of this country for centuries and was never more blatantly “outed” than under the Trump administration. It separates us from the top; Congress and the Senate cannot “integrate” among themselves to forge laws to end voter suppression, agree on the need for masks and vaccines to save all live and to, after decades of infighting at all levels of government, to begin to repair and/or replace our crumbling infrastructure.

  4. The U.S. is not alone in grappling with it’s race history. The U.K. is also in the beginnings of facing its horrid history of slavery and cultural denial of truth concerning the hundreds of massive estates (think Downton Abby) that once kept slaves… hundreds of them. The remnants of Great Britain’s Imperialism are on full display at these houses, but unrecognized by most whites there, and have suddenly been discovered thanks in part to BLM. The Brits are going through their own reckoning.
    See the Aug. 23rd issue of the New Yorker for the article by Sam Knight titled HOME TRUTH.

  5. The difference between problems and issues is in the quality of how a condition is framed. Shiela shares a timely association of major corridors that intentionally disrupted established communities with a generously funded remedy on its way. A problem has no apparent solution and leads us to non productive “ain’t it awful” dialogue. An issue is framed by something specific, something immediate, something that involves people into action. The Infrastructure Bill provides opportunity to convert problems to issues. Thank you, Sheila. Very helpful and constructive.

  6. Now I’m understanding perhaps why Biden put Pete Buttigieg in Transportation. It will take someone of his talents to wade through the controversies that will arise.

  7. Now I’m understanding perhaps why Biden put Pete Buttigieg in Transportation. It will take someone of his talents to wade through the controversies that will arise.

  8. Dennis Kucinich said the first thing he had to do as Cleveland Mayor was to “…find City Hall. “ By that, he meant the true centers of power, e.g. banks, power company, and the Democratic Machine.

    When Kucinich tried to oppose them by making changes that would benefit the taxpayers of Cleveland, there were assassination attempts on him and he was not re-elected.

    It’s technically feasible to re-route Indy’s Interstate highways underground, and restore the divided neighborhoods. Communities such as Seattle have done this.

    INDOT (and Louisiana DOT) would both reroute their Interstates through tunnels if City Hall directed directed them to do so.

  9. Gordon, Seattle sits at the base of the Cascades and has bedrock just a few feet down. That gives them a solid foundation for underground roads. Indy, on the other hand is marshland, soggy and porous. You’ve got to dig a lot further to get to bedrock. I would be interested to see an engineering plan for underground highways.

    The notion that our country has to seem to be perfect or we can’t love or support it is at the base of all the nonsense about CRT. The problem is that thinking like that severely stunts growth. That’s how we end up with the current Republican party.

  10. A different twist on the same theme from the history of Fort Wayne:

    As early as 1927 the Federal Government and the city government had struck an agreement to build the Anthony Wayne Parkway (General Wayne being the equivalent of Robert E. Lee to the indigenous peoples of this area). It would have consisted of two pairs of interstate-like expressways running North-South and East-West. But the plan was derailed by the Great Depression and then domestic material shortages of World War II. The project was revived and approved by the feds and local officials in 1946 but to be adopted the city was required to conduct a city-wide referendum. This was done in 1947 and the proposal was soundly DEFEATED by a 62% to 38% margin and the federal government awarded the project to Houston Texas. Great news, right?

    But here’s the twist. The reason for its overwhelming defeat is that the project was SO disruptive to downtown area neighborhoods that many of its black inhabitants would have to be relocated to other neighborhoods, which were all white, and not one of them would tolerate such a proposal if it meant they would have black neighbors as a result.

    However, the lack of such an expressway did little to curtail the deterioration of Fort Wayne’s inner city neighborhoods. In 1955 the city and the area’s major railroads constructed two elevated train railways traveling East-West and located on the North and South boundaries of the downtown area. They accomplished the same thing of dividing neighborhoods and keeping the black community penned in. Also, federal housing policies, redlining, and the granddaddy of them all, the American automobile, emerged as an enabler of white flight to the suburbs where rows of little pink houses were popping up like dandelions.

    You will still hear older Ft. Wayne residents shake their heads at how the city “blew it” when they turned down the opportunity to have cross-town expressway system. At the same time that many other and larger communities like Indianapolis are grappling with how to remove them or reduce their detrimental impact on neighborhoods.

  11. Like Todd Smekens, I, too, am disappointed by the post-presidency Obamas. Their silence during this period of racial animosity, the voter restriction laws being passed across the country, the furor over CRT, is deafening.

  12. What kind of America do we want? The old America with neighborhoods tightly segregated into racial/cultural groups or a multi-racial one where folks are much more mixed and separated mostly by ability to afford? Why restore the former? You don’t have to look far to see clustering of lives around “people like us” – Latinos, East Asians, etc.

    A few years ago Houston did an experiment with housing vouchers which enabled people of color to move up into middle class areas. The results were pretty stunning, especially for the children and their education. This is the kind of imagination we need for the future.

  13. I read some of “The Color of Law,” last year…about as much as I could stomach. FDR was implicated in the racist system, to my naive surprise.
    Those who might actually think that the playing field is level are either engaging in massive denial, or have not got the capacity to see anything but what their racial myopia allows, imho.
    Jan, I was unhappy with Obama’s presidency, for several reasons involving things he did not attend to. Maybe he felt he “had” to “behave himself” so as not to feed the racists any raw meat, but I don’t know that. He might have put some focus on the Electoral College, that would have been so useful!

  14. It’s very hard sometimes to diagnose what motivates any of us to do anything. We can guess what correlates with what but it’s all an approximation at best. There is no question that the notion of white superiority is behind many things that we do.

    Another force though is the assumption of wealth distribution disparity as “natural” when it’s only natural in our minds. We justify actions as good economics which people see as the end of the argument but that’s only because we accept that we can put a dollar value on everything. White folks have more because they’re worth more. What’s the dollar value of a functional family? Worth more because they have more wealth to spend on property? Economics is easy as an evaluation tool but more illusion than substance. It’s more convenient than anything as the easiest path to a black and white answer.

    It’s been said that you don’t know culture until you know two of them. Many Americans don’t and fall for culture as reality. Economics is based on the cultural assumption that value is intrinsic but it’s only a scoring system and there are others we could choose.

  15. Peggy,

    Seattle also sits in a seismic activity area. Believe it or not, Mt. Ranier is NOT an extinct volcano, just a dormant one. The East-Pacific plate butts up against the North American plate there. Tempting fate with underground construction there is probably not a good idea.

  16. I moved to Indy before I-65 and I-70 were completed. I recall I wondered which neighborhoods were being damaged by the interstates. I was aware that many houses in the “inner city” were being destroyed. As a young woman in nursing school, I did not hear the term “red lining”. The interstate also allows us to avoid looking at pockets of poverty in every place across America.

    I live in an integrated neighborhood and my African-American neighbors and I treat one another with respect. One of my neighbor’s grandsons now has a job at Eli Lilly’s. My neighbor worked at Allison’s for decades. I also have Latino neighbors. Like many neighborhoods most of us keep to ourselves.

    I have not heard stories about railroad construction’s damage to neighborhoods. There is that old saying ” He came from the wrong side of the tracks.” So, there is no doubt, that railroads created a demarcation between different social classes. I recall feeling my grandmother’s house shake when a train went by because a railroad was right behind their house.

    I wonder how long it will take us to heal the racial rift, to come together as neighbors, to stand together when the government further seeks to divide us with its infrastructure plans. Oh Lord, how long?

  17. Perhaps the real effect of our city interstate highways , planned or not, is to allow the better off, mostly white, people to easily access newer residential communities and avoid the “costs” of dealing with the growing issues of the densely populate, older city.

  18. The comments about the backlash when changes are made to address racial disparities is disheartening. When a certain percentage of the population is denied the same access to economic prosperity as everyone else, it might make the “conservative” feel better, but it is like throwing away 20% of the economy. We all do better when we all do better.

    The Federal Mortgage exemption was conceived at a time when almost no minorities owned their own homes, and if they did, they were not able to get a mortgage to buy one. And even today, to really benefit from this program, you have to be upper middle class. This is another example of a program that is racists to the core.

  19. Excellent post, Todd S.

    Also Don makes a great point. The massive effect of cars and excellent highways downtown has been to enable wealthy whites to avoid rubbing elbows with less-thans. The destructions of neighborhoods was horrible, but it was nothing compared to giving people the ability to get the hell out of Dodge at 5:00.

    Ain’t that America.

  20. Peggy and Vernon,
    The transportation tunnel under the Bosporus in Turkey passes through two geological faults. Tunnel joints at the faults are designed to absorb the tectonic movement.

    An upcoming high speed rail tunnel on the coast of Sicily lies at the base of Mt. Etna — an active volcano that is now erupting.

    Tunnel boring through soft ground (not rock) for the 40-mile 300+ mph Maglev rail from DC to Baltimore is scheduled to begin as early as next year.

    All these projects are technically feasible and lack only the go-ahead from City Hall to become reality.

    Indy-Chicago high speed rail was shown years ago to stimulate commerce to the point that its capital costs would be recovered. City hall disagreed.


  21. Okay, when has it never “not been that way?”

    With the start of the seafaring Nations slave trade activities, magnified the ideology of white superiority!

    Of course in the slave trade there were Africans complicit in that trade, but there has to be a market for that sort of behavior, and, the Caucasian ethnicity has been ravenous and their appetite for that specific behavior.

    The Aborigines in Australia, hunted to almost complete annihilation. The native Americans, butchered by the millions, purposefully infected with disease, and never a treaty made by the white man that wasn’t broken by the White man.

    The import of so many Africans across the Western hemisphere, bought and sold as commodities! Melatonin enhanced human beings conveniently scapegoated for all troubles far and wide!

    Because the white man learned how to be more brutal than their neighbors. The white man could invade countries or regions that they had no business invading in the first place. Take a look at the Middle East for an example. Drawing up boundaries that intersected different ethnic or religious communities, resulting in ethnic and religious conflict between artificially drawn boundaries and undemocratically appointed dictators ruling those artificial boundaries.

    The sad thing about a lot of this is, the white man used his religions to propagate his inhumanity, all for the sake of financial gain and vast resources attempting to quench the unquenchable drive for superiority and power! How do you change it? It’s been going on for millennia. History shows that it cannot be changed. So, with all things considered, and the ability to communicate and interact with anyone at any time anywhere on this planet, it will only get worse! The divide will only get deeper, and in the end, the demise of much of mankind’s civilization. Because not only has man disrespected and butchered his neighbor, he’s also disrespected and polluted the only home he has! And, if you think the racial divide is bad now? Wait until the water runs out in the west! The ruling class and it’s malfeasance prevent any sort of mitigation to benefit society. Therefore, society will probably cease to exist most likely, not in the to distant future.

  22. Maybe it’s just a Critical Race Hypothesis? Anecdotes aren’t evidence.
    Imposed equality of outcome smells like misguided ideology.
    Like Defund the Police. Consider public opinion, not claim-jumping carpetbagger pseudo-Reverends. Assimilation works. Not fast, but it works.
    Maybe freeways were put in poor areas because it’s cheaper.

  23. Ormond, Yes, poor people don’t have the money to hire lawyers to fight city hall. It is definitely easier to start a fight with somebody that is already down, and it is cheaper to force people to relocate that don’t have enough money to hire lawyers.

    I would have included the link if I could have found it today, but of you overlay a Red lining map of Indy and the Interstate system, it is shocking how it the exact routes stay inside of the originally red-lined neighborhoods.

    The Indy Star published a piece about how sewage is shunted out of “desirable” neighborhoods into the red-lined areas of the city. https://www.indystar.com/in-depth/news/environment/2020/05/02/redlined-indianapolis-areas-still-see-poverty-poor-health/3017810001/

    Poor people don’t fight back and people that are not given the same access to economic success because of racists polices and actions are poor and stay poor, so yeah it was cheaper because of specific policies with racist intent that have been in place for a very long time.

  24. Subjects that meet like this speak to me. When the talk of Critical Race Theory (CRT) hit conservative outrage media this year, I was curious as to what it really was. Then I realized that I learned CRT 25 years ago as a city planning student at Michigan State University. As a child, I liked seeing the maps of the highways and their exchanges drawn like a work of art and even created my own maps. A dose of reality came in that first semester in that field of study to find out that those routes were selected because they went through those neighborhoods for multiple reasons while others benefitted.

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