America’s most famous infrastructure initiative, the Interstate Freeway System, launched an elevated freeway through the center of Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans in the late 1960s.
Construction on the elevation ended with dozens of black owner-owned businesses and establishments, in addition to oak trees and azaleas that provided shade for black children playing in the large neutral zone. in the middle of the street. As a result, he eviscerated a vibrant neighborhood whose residents struggled in vain to stop construction.
More than half a century later, President Joe Biden’s $ 2 trillion plan to rebuild highways, bridges, railways and other fundamental parts of the economy comes with a new detail: hundreds of billions of dollars that management believes will help reverse racial disparities. that have been around for many years. This will be done through how the government will build, repair and locate a large number of physical infrastructure works.
The plan includes $ 20 billion to “reconnect” non-white communities with economic opportunities, such as black residents who still live in the shadow of the interstate highway along Claiborne Avenue.
The plan Biden presented in Pittsburgh on Wednesday is the first step in a two-pronged program to rebuild the U.S. economy. The president and his advisers describe this agenda – the total cost of which can reach $ 4 trillion – in grandiose terms of economic competitiveness and in the granular language of reducing the time people spend commuting.
But they also underscored the plan’s potential to promote racial equity and narrow the gap between the economic outcomes of different sectors of the population.
In addition to directing funds to neighborhoods that have been cracked or fragmented by past infrastructure projects, the proposal also includes money to replace the lead water pipe that has harmed black children in cities. like Flint, Michigan; address the environmental risk factors that plague Hispanic neighborhoods and tribal communities; provide vocational training for workers in underserved sectors of the population; and resources for home health workers, mainly non-white women.
More traditional efforts to narrow the racial opportunity gap, such as providing universal preschools and higher education at more affordable prices, will be part of the next phase of Biden’s plans. The exact mix of components is subject to change as Biden seeks approval of the plans in Congress.
Given the weak Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, the legislative battle is likely to be intense and sharply divided by party lines. There is no guarantee that the White House will win.
Republicans have opposed the corporate tax hike Biden proposes to fund this phase of his agenda. They accuse the president of using the popular “infrastructure” banner to promote what they see as liberal priorities unrelated to infrastructure, including many programs that the White House says will increase economic opportunities open to people and to disadvantaged regions.
But liberal economists say the resources provided for transportation, housing and other areas in Biden’s original plan can help promote racial equity, if used correctly.
“It’s a promising start,” said Trevon Logan, an economist at Ohio State University, whose work includes studies of how government spending plans, like the one who built the interstate highway system, have excluded or harmed non-white Americans.
The most significant element of the plan’s racial equity efforts is not a transportation or environmental project, but a $ 400 billion investment in home care for elderly and disabled Americans. The project would increase the salaries paid to caregivers, who are predominantly female, non-white and underpaid.
“This is the first employment program that focuses primarily on work done by non-white women,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the International Union of Service Workers. “It will transform the lives of Blacks, Maroons and Asians, as well as entire communities.”
White House officials say the $ 100 billion the plan intends to allocate to improving and expanding broadband internet will benefit black and Latin American families, who have less access than white families to affordable broadband.
Half of the $ 40 billion the plan plans to spend to modernize research labs across the country will be set aside for colleges and universities that have historically served black and other non-white students.
Republicans have complained that much of the bill does not provide funding for what they describe as traditional infrastructure, such as bridges and highways. “Biden’s plan includes hundreds of billions of dollars in funds for leftist policies and democratic state priorities,” the Republican National Committee wrote in a press release, including “$ 400 billion for a program of “unbound” home help. claim of certain trade union entities “.
Administration officials say concerns about racial disparity are one of the driving forces behind the infrastructure campaign. They filled a 25-page text explaining the employment plan released this week with racial equity references and included two specific examples of the kind of communities they hope to benefit from the $ 20 billion for economic revitalization: the black neighborhood. of Syracuse which was partly demolished to make way for Interstate 81 and the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans.
Public spending on infrastructure aims to make the economy more efficient. Highways and railways facilitate the transport of goods from factories to market. Roads and transportation systems move workers between their homes and their places of work.
But in the case of some non-white communities, this work has devastated existing economies, demolishing trade corridors, separating black neighborhoods from city centers, and accelerating suburbanization trends that have exacerbated racial segregation.
Urban historian Eric Avila of the University of California at Los Angeles said a consensus reached under Dwight Eisenhower’s government on the need to invest in highways connecting neighborhoods to cities has led to the exclusion of communities minority.
And the federal government has used redevelopment programs called “urban renewal” or “slum removal” which in many cases have paved the way for the construction of giant infrastructure projects, such as highways.
“These highways were built primarily to be means of transporting wealth,” Avila said. “Mainly wealth, jobs, people and white markets. Highways were built to facilitate the connection between suburbs and cities. Those who were left behind were urban minorities: African Americans, immigrants, Latinos. “
Ávila highlighted how plans to build the Inner Belt Freeway in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were halted after protests from professors at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
And in New Orleans, Ávila said, plans for a freeway called the Riverfront Expressway were scrapped when authorities faced pressure from protesters in the French Quarter. But black protesters were unable to save Treme, one of the nation’s oldest free black resident communities, from building an elevated section of six-lane Interstate 10 along the avenue. Claiborne.
Amy Stelly remembers this highway every morning when the passing of trucks shakes her house. Exhaust from the interstate highway a block away completely blackened some of the jewelry she had placed near the window.
“Anyone who lives near an urban freeway knows what we breathe on a daily basis,” said Stelly, who is a city planner and activist fighting against the project. “There is a layer of dirt settling on our homes and properties.”