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Reckoning With Racial Inequality in America’s Infrastructure

Reckoning With Racial Inequality in America’s Infrastructure from @prosperitynow
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As debates over infrastructure continue after the bipartisan deal passed the Senate last week, it is worth reflecting on the history of racial inequality embedded in the nation’s infrastructure.

Infrastructure policy has historically exacerbated racial inequality and continued its legacy. A prime example is the redlining of communities of color. During the New Deal, while the Federal Housing Authority provided low-interest mortgages to White families, it explicitly marked off “risky” areas – home mostly to communities of color – from receiving mortgage insurance. The result was rapidly accumulating wealth for White households and continued precarity for households of color, who were denied homeownership and thus relegated to segregated neighborhoods that still exist today.

Even as Black people attempted to create wealth and culture within their segregated neighborhoods, infrastructure policies continued to interfere. Redlined neighborhoods became dumping grounds for federal and state infrastructure projects, plowing through flourishing cities with Black economies such as Baltimore, MD, and Detroit, MI, and destroying Black homes and businesses. The 1956 Interstate Highway Act that created the cross-country freeways we rely on today displaced more than 475,000 families and more than one million people, many of them low-income and people of color, in two decades. Much of this was intentional; a professor at New York University School of Law Deborah Archer writes that the Act served to hinder the physical and economic development of Black neighborhoods and maintain de facto racial segregation when Jim Crow laws were being illegalized.

Communities of color are often intentionally subjected to the brunt of environmental hazards, the Flint (MI) water crisis being a glaring example.

– Aniket Mehrotra

This new infrastructure was effective in upholding segregation and worsening inequality, leaving communities of color vulnerable to perpetual harm — physical, socioeconomic and environmental. A landmark 1987 report by the United Church of Christ, entitled “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States”, found that race was the most significant indicator for the placement of toxic waste sites, ahead of socioeconomic status. Communities of color are often intentionally subjected to the brunt of environmental hazards, the Flint (MI) water crisis being a glaring example in which thousands of residents of color were exposed to lead-contaminated water for five years.

How can we meaningfully remediate the inequities perpetuated by racist infrastructure policies? Archer provides several recommendations: adopt racial equity as a critical analytical framework, uplift impacted communities to the decision-making table and ensure the equitable advancement and proactive preservation of communities of color, among others. In doing so, we must utilize data and research that fully captures the issues faced by specific racial and ethnic groups.

President Biden made redressing racial inequities a key framework for his initial American Jobs Plan proposal. He launched the Justice40 initiative which would allocate 40% of environmental infrastructure benefits to disadvantaged communities. However, many of the programs in the jobs plan that would tackle historical racial inequities – including billions to reintegrate communities ravaged by highway construction and replace all lead pipes in the U.S. – were shrunk or gutted from the bipartisan deal passed in the Senate.

Furthermore, with climate change deemed a “code red for humanity” by United Nations (UN) leaders last week, infrastructure investments need to proactively limit greenhouse gas emissions. The UN Sixth Assessment Report calls for reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming.

While the bipartisan deal does include some provisions for pollution cleanup and climate-resilient infrastructure, it excludes many of Biden’s original climate proposals and includes $25 billion in subsidies for fossil fuel technologies, far from the investments in renewable energy needed to combat global warming.

While admirable, the bipartisan negotiations on infrastructure have limited Biden’s potential to make necessary, sweeping investments towards racial equity and against climate change. Given the urgency of both crises, Prosperity Now hopes that subsequent investments such as the Democratic-led $3.5 trillion spending plan will center racial equity and bring necessary support to the communities that need it most.

Originally posted by Prosperity Now on 2021-08-19 19:00:00

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