Tag Archives: ReThink

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.