Of all the inanities in President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, the most infuriating has to be the $20 billion it would spend, in part, destroying infrastructure.
If this sounds a bit like Keynesian ditch-digging, that’s because it is, but there’s also another element to it: Those roads were apparently “racist” because, at the time they were built, they ran through majority-black neighborhoods. A fact-sheet from the White House states the “plan includes $20 billion for a new program that will reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access.”
“Too often, past transportation investments divided communities — like the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans or I-81 in Syracuse — or it left out the people most in need of affordable transportation options,” the fact-sheet states. So, if the plan gets passed, down they come.
This element might be a difficult sell, especially since the GOP has attacked the plan for how little it spends on actual infrastructure.
“This plan is not about rebuilding America’s backbone. Less than 6% of this massive proposal goes to roads and bridges,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated in a news release March 31. “It would spend more money just on electric cars than on America’s roads, bridges, ports, airports, and waterways combined.”
But, politics being what they are, the Biden administration isn’t going to retreat now, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has gone to partisan media to make his case. In an interview with liberal, black-centric site TheGrio published last week, Buttigieg claimed racism was baked into the Interstate Highway System when it was originally conceived.
“There is racism physically built into some of our highways, and that’s why the jobs plan has specifically committed to reconnect some of the communities that were divided by these dollars,” Buttigieg told April Ryan.
In an interview that would have been far more disastrous had most media not granted Buttigieg the kindness of ignoring it, the transportation secretary said someone told him that a major D.C. highway cut through majority-black neighborhoods.
(Not that he found out on his own or looked it up after he heard it. None of that grunt-level research stuff for our transportation secretary.)
“Well, if you’re in Washington, I’m told that the history of that highway is one that was built at the expense of communities of color in the D.C. area,” Buttigieg said.
“There are stories, and I think Philadelphia and Pittsburgh [and] in New York, Robert Moses famously saw through the construction of a lot of highways.”
I mean, someone told him. There are stories. Um, equity. Robert Moses. Systems of oppression. Oh, geez, that’s all the time we have! Sorry, April.
If there was more context to this, Ryan wasn’t generous enough to provide it. Most people can guess the context — yes, when the Interstate Highway System was being built or when New York’s Robert Moses and other city planners devised highway systems, they often went through urban neighborhoods, some of them majority-black.
Most of this was over a half-century ago, however — which means these neighborhoods have adapted. Aside from the absurdity of an infrastructure plan that actively destroys infrastructure, we should keep in mind what this plan aims to accomplish.
Let’s take the Claiborne Expressway, seen as the poster child for the Biden administration’s tear-down effort. It was built over Claiborne Ave. in the New Orleans neighborhood of Tremé beginning 55 years ago, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“Since traversed by countless motorists, the overpass has taken on decidedly negative connotations — as an intrusion, a barrier, a destroyer of Black businesses, a trigger of community divestment and an example of racist urban planning,” the paper reported Friday.
“For locals, the mention promises to reopen a conversation from 2012, when the city held workshops to imagine Claiborne with its overpass removed.
“This time, federal funding may transform Claiborne’s future, and at the center of upcoming conversations is an understanding of Claiborne’s past.”
And this is the problem with every supposedly well-intentioned dollar spent tearing down infrastructure because of its past connections, either perceived or real, to iniquity and inequity: The conversation is going to be centered around Claiborne’s Ave.’s past, not Claiborne’s Ave.’s future.
It’s been 55 years since construction began on the Claiborne Expressway, which means we’re as connected to the Claiborne Ave. of 1966 as the Claiborne Ave. of 1966 was to the Claiborne Ave. of 1921.
Admittedly, yes, it would have been a good idea for the people who planned the Claiborne Expressway to have a conversation about the neighborhood’s past when they were building it. This isn’t to defend big-government, Robert Moses-style utopians or assume there weren’t racial insensitivities or even outright racist intentions.
That said, they didn’t have that conversation and the highway is there, serving its purpose. So now we tear it down and — what?
The neighborhood flourishes like it did in the pre-expressway era, even given the half-century remove from its construction?
And, if it flourishes, does the neighborhood become gentrified, negating the entire point behind spending the money in the first place?
Do the activists who called for the expressway’s demolition know the answer to these questions? For that matter, does Buttigieg?
That’s a more pressing issue, considering our nation’s transportation secretary comes across as wretchedly uninformed about any of this during the interview.
He claims “[t]here is racism physically built into some of our highways” and offers as evidence that he’s been “told” a highway in Washington, D.C., is racist and “[t]here are stories” about similar shenanigans in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Either the notoriously liberal “journalist” April Ryan was surprisingly willing to throw a Biden cabinet member under several buses or these were the best quotes she could come up with, because the only way he would have come across as substantially worse is if he’d started blabbering like his boss in the White House about “that thingy down there in, um, I think it’s Charlotte and, uh, what’s the highway that goes through, erm, Tony Bennett used to sing a song about it. Remember? He left his heart there or something?”
Yet liberals love having Buttigieg in charge of the country’s transportation. Remember this embrace of his nomination announcement?
Pete Buttigieg, President-elect Biden’s pick for transportation secretary, said he has “a personal love of transportation,” recounting train trips on Amtrak while in college, and said he proposed to his now-husband, Chasten, in an airport terminal. https://t.co/0t3cUASIAU
— NPR Politics (@nprpolitics) December 16, 2020
I always assumed the infamous NPR tweet about how Pete Buttigieg’s transportation bona fides included riding Amtrak and proposing to his husband in an airport terminal was a bit of a laugh, a badly mangled attempt to condense the infrastructure CV of the former presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, down to 280 characters.
However, after Buttigieg’s unnervingly weak, inapt and ill-prepared attempt to defend one of the roughest patches of the Biden infrastructure plan — the idea that racism is so baked into certain highways that they need to be torn down, and that their destruction will “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments” in a meaningful way — I’m beginning to think that really was the best NPR could come up with.
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