Addressing The Racial Inequities Of The Interstate Highway System

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In an aerial view, cars drive along Interstate 280 on June 11, 2021 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
In an aerial view, cars drive along Interstate 280 on June 11, 2021 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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


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

Also Featured

Shirley Mixon, life-long 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 inequities in the U.S. 

Deborah Archer: "Transportation infrastructure and policy have had a profound role in creating and then normalizing patterns of racial segregation, exclusion and economic isolation. And really, race frequently explains which communities receive the benefits of our entire transportation system, and which communities were forced to host the burdens leading to racial disparities and discrimination that were reinforced daily by other transportation policies. So we had an infrastructure that was built in a way that discriminated against communities of color, primarily Black communities. And then we layered on other transportation policies and public transportation that have all just compounded that harm each and every day."

On racism in the U.S. transportation system 

Deborah Archer: "Black people have had this really complicated, complex relationship with transportation. So, you know, for decades, using public transportation was a reminder for Black people of their legal and social inferiority. The status that they occupied in this country, particularly in the south and sitting in the back of the bus, required to give up your seat, separate waiting rooms. In transportation facilities, separate bathrooms and drinking fountains.

"And so, in a limited way, the highway, and roads and the car presented an opportunity for Black people and other people of color to escape that kind of daily reminders and daily indignities of using more public transportation options. But then, of course, they could not escape discrimination. And racial discrimination followed them onto the roads, into the highways in many different ways."

On the destruction of Overtown, a Black community in Florida

Deborah Archer: “When you're examining the impact that the interstate highway had on Black communities, and other communities of color, I think you have to look at the many ways that it helped to solidify our racially segregated and discriminatory landscape. And that's by serving sometimes as walls, sometimes as a wedge and sometimes as an extractor in Black communities around the country. And so in terms of it being an extractor, the highways were a tool of removal. And in states around the country, highway construction, displaced households, Black households and really destroyed thriving communities as their homes, and churches, and schools and businesses were destroyed.

"And in some of those communities, the highway became the tool that white government officials had been looking for for a long time. They had wanted to claim Black neighborhoods. They had wanted to remove Black residents, but lacked the tools because the law prevented other overt forms of discrimination. And the highway construction provided not only the tool, but funds and resources to do that.

"An example is the destruction of a Black community to make way for I-95 in Miami, Florida. And that's an example of how construction of the highway was used to actualize a racial agenda to destroy a vibrant Black community. I-95 tore through the center of Overtown, which was a large and vibrant Black community that was then considered to be the center of economic and cultural life for Black people who were living in Miami. And the destruction of Overtown was the realization of a decade-long campaign by white business leaders and government officials that wanted to remove Black residents and claim that land to expand Miami Central Business District.

"And by the late 1960s, they were successful. And Overtown was dominated by the highway and there was really no evidence of why it was once called the Harlem of the South. Nearly 40,000 people lived in Overtown before the highway expansion. And shortly after the highways built, only about 8,000 remained in that community, and it really did to devastate them. And that happened again around the country where the goal was to remove Black community. Sometimes the excuse was given that they were trying to remove blighted communities or quote-unquote slums. Often those communities were nowhere near what anyone would consider to be a blighted community. But that was used as an excuse."


On how to successfully plan highway removals in the U.S. 

Deborah Archer: “It does have to be planned. And it's not a plan that takes place over one-year highway projects. It's a decade-long project, and the planning begins long before we see any results. So one way is to involve community members from the very beginning in that planning. And that does not mean just listening to what community members have to say, because we're not going to see the kind of results that we want to see if there's not a shift in power. And we're empowering community members to say what their community needs, what do they need and what's going to be best, and how we move forward.

"I think, it's a challenge that we don't focus on how to address the kind of entrenched inequality and just focus on moving forward. So moving forward, we're going to do X, Y and Z, but that doesn't address all of the harms that have been inflicted on this community over decades and how it is entrenched, the inequality. We have to focus on housing. And making sure that we're rebuilding businesses and building affordable housing so that people can stay and are not driven out of their homes.”

On how a 'racial impact statement' for highway projects would work 

Deborah Archer: “When adopted, racial equity impact studies or statements, as they're sometimes called, can be a powerful tool for understanding how past, present and proposed systems contribute to racial inequality. And it forces government agencies to think about this complicated web of considerations that we 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 legal system.

"And I think that they could be really powerful tools here if federal, state and local agencies planning highway redevelopment projects had to complete multiagency, multi-domain and regionally-focused racial equity impact studies prior to developing and implementing their plans to really systematically analyze how racial and ethnic groups are going to be affected. To address a wide variety of racialized harms that continue to be systemic and pervasive.”

From The Reading List

NPR: "A Brief History Of How Racism Shaped Interstate Highways" — "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."

New York Times: "Can Removing Highways Fix America’s 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 broad, concrete trench that separated downtown from the rest of the city."

Reuters: "U.S. freeways flattened Black neighborhoods nationwide" — "SYRACUSE, N.Y., May 25 (Reuters) - Syracuse wasn't the only city where Black residents were displaced by the U.S. freeway-building boom of the 1950s and 1960s."

New York Times: "Efforts to Advance Racial Equity Baked In Throughout Biden’s Budget" — "WASHINGTON — Six days after his inauguration, President Biden vowed that his administration would see everything through the lens of racial equality, making it “the business of the whole of government."

This program aired on June 22, 2021.


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Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.


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