Addressing racial inequalities in the interstate road network


The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways that would connect our nation. But these highways have also displaced and divided black communities. Can the damage be repaired?


Deborah Archer, Chairman of the ACLU National Board of Directors. Professor of clinical law and faculty co-director of the Center of Race, Inequality and the Law at New York University School of Law. (@DeborahNArcher)

Also featured

Shirley mixon, longtime resident of Hanford Village in Columbus, Ohio.

Shawn dunwoody, artist and community organizer based in Rochester, New York. (@shawndunwoody)

Interview highlights

On how transportation policies highlighted racial inequalities in the United States

Deborah Archer: “Transport infrastructure and policies have played an important role in creating and then normalizing models of racial segregation, exclusion and economic isolation. the charges leading to racial disparities and discrimination which were reinforced daily by other transport policies. So we had an infrastructure that was built in a way that discriminated against communities of color, mainly black communities. And then we layered other transport policies and public transport which only made this evil worse every day. “

On racism in the American transportation system

Deborah Archer: “Blacks have had this really complicated, complex relationship with transportation. So, you know, for decades the use of public transportation has reminded blacks of their legal and social inferiority. The status they occupied in this country, especially in the south and sitting in the back of the bus, forced to give way, separate waiting rooms.In the means of transport, separate toilets and water fountains.

“And so, in a limited way, the freeway, the roads, and the car have offered black people and other people of color an opportunity to escape these kinds of daily reminders and daily indignities to use more money. “transit options. But then, of course, they couldn’t escape discrimination. And racial discrimination followed them on the roads, on the highways in so many ways.

On the destruction of Overtown, a black community in Florida

Deborah Archer: “When you examine the impact the interstate highway has had on black communities and other communities of color, I think you need to examine the many ways it has helped solidify our landscape of racial segregation and discrimination. And that is by serving as sometimes walls, sometimes as a corner and sometimes as an extractor in black communities across the country. And so as an extractor, the highways were a tool for removal. And in states across the country, highway construction, displaced households, black households, and thriving communities have really destroyed their homes, churches, schools, and businesses.

“And in some of those communities, the freeway became the tool that white officials had long sought after. They wanted to claim black neighborhoods. They wanted to evict black residents, but lacked tools because the law prevented them from doing so. other overt forms of discrimination And the construction of the highway provided not only the tool, but also the funds and resources to make it happen.

“One example is the destruction of a black community to make way for I-95 in Miami, Florida. And this is an example of how the freeway construction was used to actualize a racial agenda. aimed at destroying a vibrant black community.The I-95 tore through downtown Overtown, which was a large and vibrant black community that was then seen as the center of economic and cultural life for blacks living in Miami And the destruction of Overtown was the accomplishment of a decade-long campaign by white business leaders and government officials who wanted to evict black residents and claim that land to expand Miami’s central business district.

“And in the late 1960s, they did it. And Overtown was dominated by the freeway and there was really no evidence why it was once called the South Harlem. Almost 40,000 people lived in Overtown. before the highway expansion. And soon after the highways were built, there were only about 8,000 left in that community, and it really devastated them. And it happened again across the country where the goal was to wipe out the black community. Sometimes the excuse was given that they were trying to wipe out the quotes from the slums. Often those communities were far from what anyone would consider a dilapidated community. But it did. been used as an excuse. “

On How To Successfully Plan For Freeway Removals In The United States

Deborah Archer: “It has to be planned. And it’s not a plan that unfolds over one-year road projects. It’s a ten-year project, and the planning begins long before we see results. One way, then, is to involve community members from the start in this planning. And that doesn’t mean just listening to what community members have to say, because we’re not going to see the kind of results we want to see if there isn’t a shift in power. And we empower community members to say what their community needs, what they need and what will be best, and how we are moving forward.

“I think it’s a challenge that we don’t focus on how to tackle the entrenched type of inequality and just focus on advancement. So to move forward, we’re going to do X, Y, and Z, but that doesn’t. Address all the damage that has been done to this community over the decades and the way it is ingrained, inequality. We need to focus on housing. And make sure we rebuild businesses and build affordable housing so people can stay and not be driven from their homes.

On the operation of a “racial impact statement” for road projects

Deborah Archer: “When adopted, racial equity impact studies or statements, as they are sometimes called, can be a powerful tool in understanding how past, present and proposed systems contribute to racial inequality. And it forces government agencies to reflect on this complex web of considerations we were talking about. And these types of studies have been used or proposed in various contexts to reform racialized institutions and structures, including our criminal justice system.

“And I think they could be really powerful tools here if federal, state and local agencies that are planning freeway redevelopment projects were to complete multi-agency, multi-agency racial equity impact studies. -domains and regions before developing and implementing their plans to really systematically analyze how racial and ethnic groups are going to be affected.

From the playlist

NPR: “A Brief History of How Racism Shaped Interstate Highways” – “In his $ 2 trillion plan to improve America’s infrastructure, President Biden vows to tackle racism rooted in historic transportation and the urban planning. “

New York Times: “Can the removal of highways repair American cities?” – “Built in the 1950s to speed suburban commuters to and from downtown, Rochester’s Inner Loop destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, replacing them with a large concrete trench that separated the center – city from the rest of the city. “

Reuters: “US highways have razed black neighborhoods across the country” – “SYRACUSE, NY, May 25 (Reuters) – Syracuse was not the only city where black residents have been displaced by the construction boom highways in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. “

New York Times: “Efforts to Advance Racial Equity Throughout Biden’s Budget” – “WASHINGTON – Six days after his inauguration, President Biden vowed that his administration would see everything through the prism of racial equality, making “The business of the whole government.” “” “

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