A Brief History Of How Racism Shaped Interstate Highways

Apr 7, 2021
Originally published on April 12, 2021 12:44 pm

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.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This story is literally built into American culture. It's referred to in a song by John Mellencamp.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINK HOUSES")

JOHN MELLENCAMP: (Singing) Well, there's a Black man with a black cat living in a Black neighborhood. He's got a interstate running through his front yard. You know, he thinks he's got it so good.

INSKEEP: An interstate running through his front yard - when the U.S. built highways in the 20th century, many ran through Black neighborhoods. Read of Robert Moses in New York or Richard Daley in Chicago, and you learn this story. President Biden's infrastructure plan includes money to repair the damage.

Noel King spoke with Deborah Archer, president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

NOEL KING, HOST:

I want people to understand what this experience was like, and so I'm going to play some tape from a man named Sam Fulwood III. He grew up on the west side of Charlotte, N.C., and we came across his name in a paper you wrote called "White Men's Roads Through Black Men's Homes." Now, he told us, back in the day, his neighborhood was like Eden basically. Here he is.

SAM FULWOOD III: (Reading) But that was in the early 1960s, before the bulldozers uprooted the dogwoods and the oaks, gobbled up wide paved streets and turned my playmates' homes into rubble. I vividly remember the change in terms that a little boy can understand. Jimmy Don Arnold, who had the largest and best comic book collection, tearfully told me one day he couldn't hang with the fellas anymore because the mysterious they were tearing down his house. William "Beegee" White's huge front yard, where we played pickup football games, became a mound of red dirt for an embankment to support an off-ramp to I-77.

KING: That is a devastating story. And as your paper makes clear, it was not just Charlotte. This was happening all over the country.

DEBORAH ARCHER: That's right. It was certainly not an isolated incident. And communities around the country, when the interstate highway was built, it had a devastating impact of physical - around segregation, but also, as you heard from Mr. Fulwood, psychological as people in the community saw community institutions destroy their homes. They lost friends, churches, schools. And we see that lasting impact of the highway construction today.

KING: Can you explain how this happened? Were there land seizures via eminent domain? Would the government offer payouts to people whose homes they were bulldozing?

ARCHER: Yeah. So I can take a step back. Following the passage of the Interstate Highway Act, the nation's highways were built through and around Black communities, destroying them, sometimes creating physical barriers to integration or to physically entrench racial inequality. And much of that was by design. And in communities around the country, federal and state highway builders purposefully targeted Black communities to make way for this massive highway project. And in some instances, they took homes by eminent domain. They claimed that communities were blighted when in fact they were vibrant.

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

ARCHER: 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.

KING: Was there any successful resistance? Was there any resistance at all?

ARCHER: Oh, absolutely. 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 man'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, not because we were concerned about the massive destruction and disproportionate impact that the highway construction had on Black communities.

KING: And now President Biden wants to use his infrastructure plan to do just that. Let me ask, based on what you've seen of the plan, do you think this is an achievable goal?

ARCHER: I think the plan certainly holds promise. It could be truly transformative because it potentially represents an historic investment in urban communities and communities of color. Investments in transportation, but also in schools and water are all really critically important factors in the ability of communities and people who live there to thrive and be healthy and to be happy. But 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.

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.

KING: And if this initiative works, in what ways do you see the country being different in five or 10 years?

ARCHER: 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. So I would hope that at the end of this project, 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 - would not be a way to explain who has access and who doesn't.

KING: Deborah Archer is president of the ACLU and a professor at New York University School of Law.

Thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate your time.

ARCHER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.