Biden Seeks to Use Infrastructure Plan to Address Racial Inequities

WASHINGTON – America’s most famous infrastructure initiative, the Interstate Highway System, rammed an elevated road through the center of Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans in the late 1960s.

Dozens of black-owned businesses were alleged, along with oak and azalea bushes that had shaded black children playing on the large neutral ground in the middle of the street and gutted a vibrant neighborhood whose residents vainly struggled to stop construction.

More than half a century later, President Biden’s $ 2 trillion plan to rebuild aging roads, bridges, railroad lines, and other economic foundations brings a new twist: hundreds of billions of dollars that government officials say will help To reverse the longstanding race differences in the way the government builds, repairs, and locates a wide range of physical infrastructure.

That includes $ 20 billion to reconnect color communities with economic opportunities, like the black residents who still live in the shadow of the freeway along Claiborne.

Mr. Biden’s plan, unveiled in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, is the first step in a two-part agenda to reshape the American economy. The President and his advisors set this agenda – the total cost of which could reach $ 4 trillion – in light of economic competitiveness and the granular language of reduced commute times.

But they also highlighted the potential for promoting racial justice and filling gaps in economic outcomes.

In addition to earmarked funding for neighborhoods that have been split or fragmented by previous infrastructure projects, the proposal also includes funds to replace lead water pipes that have harmed black children in cities like Flint, Michigan. eliminating environmental threats that have plagued Hispanic neighborhoods and tribal communities; Employee training for underserved groups; and funds for household helpers, who are mostly black women.

The next phase of Mr Biden’s plans will see more traditional efforts to fill gaps in racial opportunities, such as universal preschool and more affordable higher education. The exact mix of components is likely to change as Mr. Biden tries to get the plans through Congress.

Given the low democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, the legislative battle is likely to be intense and extremely partisan, with no assurance that the White House will prevail.

Republicans have objected to the corporate tax hikes. Mr Biden has proposed funding this phase of his agenda, and they have accused the President of using the popular “infrastructure” banner to sell what they call unrelated liberal priorities – including many programs White House officials say this will improve economic opportunities for disadvantaged people and areas.

However, Liberal economists say spending on transportation, housing and other areas of Mr Biden’s original plan could help advance racial justice if properly carried out.

“This is a promising start,” said Trevon Logan, an economist at Ohio State University whose work includes studies of how government spending projects, like the one that built the freeway system, have excluded or hurt Americans who are not white .

Most of the Plan’s Racial Justice effort is not a transportation or environmental project, but rather a $ 400 billion investment in home care for elderly and disabled Americans. This would increase the wages of nurses who are mostly poorly paid, female and not white.

“It is the first job program to focus primarily on the work of women of skin color,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. “It will change the lives of blacks, browns and Asians and entire communities.”

White House officials say the $ 100 billion plan to upgrade and expand broadband will disproportionately help black and Latin American families who have less access to affordable broadband than white families.

Half of the $ 40 billion the plan would spend on modernizing research laboratories across the country would be reserved for colleges and universities that historically served black and other color students.

Republicans have complained that much of the bill does not fund so-called traditional infrastructure such as roads and bridges. “Biden’s plan sees hundreds of billions of billions of billions of dollars spent on left-wing politics and blue state priorities,” the Republican National Committee wrote in a press release, including “$ 400 billion for an” unrelated “home care program that is a top demand was some union groups. ‘”

Mr Biden said he wanted bipartisan support for the law but angered conservatives and corporations with his demands to fund it through corporate tax hikes. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that Mr Biden was open to discussing a tighter infrastructure bill with Republicans, even though she said the White House hadn’t received a proposal from them.

She declined to say which provisions Mr. Biden might be willing to drop.

“The administration designed this bill with the aim of fulfilling the moment and doing so in such a way as to ensure that we approach the challenges in our country through a lens of justice,” said Ms. Psaki.

Government officials say racial inequality concerns are a driving force behind the infrastructure push. They peppered a 25-page employment plan statement this week with references to racial justice, including two specific examples of the kind of communities they want to pick up with the $ 20 billion for economic revitalization: the partially black neighborhood in Syracuse Bulldozer, um Make way for Interstate 81 and the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans.

Government spending on infrastructure is intended to make the economy more efficient. Motorways and railways accelerate the movement of goods from factories to markets. Roads and transit systems bring workers from home to their workplaces.

For some color communities, however, these projects ravaged existing economies, paved trade corridors, cut off black neighborhoods from inner cities, and accelerated suburbanization trends that exacerbated segregation.

“Many previous government investments in infrastructure have purposely excluded these communities,” said Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council. “So if you look at where we need to invest in infrastructure now, a lot of it is in these communities.”

Previous projects were often built in communities that did not have the political capital or resources to protest successfully.

“When it comes to building a freeway through a city, a pattern emerges: the areas that will be displaced by that freeway will mostly be the areas that will be occupied by African Americans,” said Dr. Logan. Often, he added, lawmakers choose to “build in places that have the slightest political power to make sure it doesn’t happen in their neighborhood”.

Eric Avila, urban historian at the University of California at Los Angeles, said a consensus during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration on the need to invest in highways connecting neighborhoods with cities resulted in the exclusion of minority communities.

The federal government also used redevelopment programs for “urban renewal” or “slum clearance”, which often led to the opening of huge infrastructure projects such as highways.

“These highways were essentially built as channels for wealth,” Avila said. “Mainly white wealth, jobs, people, markets. The highways were built to promote connectivity between suburbs and cities. The people who were left out were urban minorities. African Americans, immigrants, Latinos. “

Mr. Avila pointed out how plans for the Inner Belt Highway in Cambridge, Massachusetts were halted after protests from faculty members at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And in New Orleans, Avila said, plans for a freeway called the Riverfront Expressway were canceled after officials came under pressure from protesters in the French Quarter. But black protesters were unable to spare Treme, one of the country’s oldest communities of free black residents, from building an elevated six-lane section of Interstate 10 along Claiborne Avenue.

Amy Stelly is reminded of this freeway every morning when the truck traffic makes her home shudder. Emissions from the freeway a block away have turned jewelry she placed near her window jet black.

“Anyone who lives near an urban highway knows what we breathe every day,” said Ms. Stelly, a city planner and anti-project activist. “There is a layer of silt that sticks to our properties and homes.”

It is not clear from Mr Biden’s plan and conversations with White House officials what the administration has in mind for Claiborne Avenue. If the funding survives on a bill that Mr Biden may sign, those details will matter, said Deborah Archer, director of the Center on Race, Inequality and Law at New York University School of Law.

“I think it’s wonderful to be able to say and aim that this historic investment will promote racial justice,” said Ms. Archer. “It is another matter to distribute these funds in such a way that they have an impact.”

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