When the urban planner Robert Moses began building projects in New York during the 1920s, he bulldozed Black and Latino homes to make way for parks, and built highways through the middle of minority neighborhoods. According to one biography, Moses even made sure bridges on the parkways connecting New York City to beaches in Long Island were low enough to keep city buses — which would likely be carrying poor minorities — from passing underneath.
But Moses was no outlier. The highways and public spaces that shape our cities were often intentionally built at the expense of Black, Latino and other minority Americans.
Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, says race has played a central role in how cities across America developed - and in how they continue to grow.
"Transportation has always been embedded in civil rights and racism," says Bullard. He points to Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark 1896 Supreme Court case that upheld racial segregation in state laws. Homer Plessy, the plaintiff, was arrested for boarding a "whites-only" train car in New Orleans to protest segregation on Louisiana's railways.
While the court would eventually come to reject the "separate but equal" doctrine enshrined by the case starting in the 1950's, Bullard says even today, not all transportation is created equal. Instead, cities often base plans for bus routes, highways and other infrastructure on a premise that some communities have more worth than others.
Bullard, who has written and edited over a dozen books on the relationship between race, cities and the environment, says that historically, urban planners followed the path of least resistance. And because minority communities were already disenfranchised, they didn't have a say in how their neighborhoods were developed.
Some progress has been made as laws have changed around practices like housing segregation, but Bullard says minorities are often still excluded from planning decisions. He calls the dynamic at play "highway robbery," wherein minorities pay taxes at the same rates as white Americans, but those dollars then subsidize racist patterns of development.
Freeways and bus routes, however, are just one part of a bigger picture: what urban planners refer to as "locally unwanted land-uses." These projects include highways, landfills, incinerators, bus depots and other kinds of projects that disproportionately fall in minority communities and often cause pollution and harm the health of residents.
"Oftentimes, communities of color have the wrong complexion for protection," Bullard said in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. "You can't wash race out of it ... There's all kinds of studies that show that race is still the most potent variable for predicting who gets more than their fair share of the 'nasty stuff,' and who gets more than their fair share of the good stuff."
Bullard argues that losing out on "the good stuff" ultimately shortens Black and brown lives. Minorities are disproportionately likely to live in areas with more pollution and in areas that are flood-prone.
They also live in communities that end up retaining more heat due to a lack of parks and green spaces. The resulting "urban heat island" effect can turn deadly for minorities during warm weather. In Chicago, a particularly hot summer in 1995 led to over 700 heat-related deaths. Most of the heat wave's victims were elderly, poor and disproportionately Black.
Bullard also points to pollution as part of the reason why African Americans and Latinos are dying at higher rates from COVID-19 than other racial groups. Asthma is a risk factor for COVID-19, and several studies have linked African-Americans' high prevalence of asthma to environmental pollution. And preliminary research from researchers at Harvard has found that areas with more air pollution are seeing a corresponding rise in COVID-19 deaths.
At a time when statues of American historical figures who owned slaves or perpetuated colonialism are tumbling across the country, Bullard says movements for racial and environmental justice have long been removing "invisible statues" by changing the routes of freeways and transit systems and opening up access to clean, affordable and efficient public transportation to minority communities.
One model he points to is Los Angeles, where in 1996 organizers and local residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority to stop it from diverting federal funding to a light rail line in the predominantly white suburbs. An out-of-court settlement forced the MTA to build 278 new environmentally-friendly buses and won cheaper, safer bus rides for poor and minority residents.
Bullard says communities in Atlanta, the Bay Area, Chicago, New York and Boston have had similar successes through grassroots campaigns, lawsuits and administrative complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
Ultimately, Bullard says, these victories are about making sure that access to the city, nature, bike lanes and walkable neighborhoods aren't just the domain of the white middle class, but are open to poor, nonwhite people as well.
"We've made a lot of inroads in making sure that monies flow back to rebuild transportation, and that our dollars can be flexible in a way that doesn't just build roads and highways, but also can rebuild communities and livability."
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
The highways and public spaces that shape modern New York City were built at the expense of Black and Latino New Yorkers. When Robert Moses, an unabashed racist, began building his public projects in the 1920s, he bulldozed Black and Hispanic homes to make way for parks. He built highways right through the middle of minority neighborhoods. And when he built the highways leading from the city to the breezy beaches of Long Island, he ordered engineers to make sure those bridges were low enough so that city buses - which would likely carry poor people - would not be able to pass through. But Robert Moses was not an outlier. Robert Bullard is a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, and he argues racism played a central role in how cities all across America developed. Robert, good morning.
ROBERT BULLARD: Good morning.
DETROW: What is the impact if you live in a community, and it's suddenly divided by a highway? And what's the impact decades later when that highway is still there cutting that community in half?
BULLARD: Well, if we look at the history of highways and freeways, you know, the shortest distance between two points is supposed to be a straight line. But if it - that straight line somehow intersects or interferes with rich people and white people, it oftentimes get detoured. And the history of highways cutting through Black communities and cities - and communities get destroyed, vibrant economic business corridors that split people - entire neighborhoods from one side to the other. In many cases, the highways and freeways were not built for the communities that they dissected.
DETROW: Well, let's stick with that for a second because you see this counterargument sometimes - that these choices were made not due to outright racism but the question of simple power - it was just easier to build a road through these neighborhoods because property values were cheaper. The people living there could not organize as well to push back. What do you make of that counterpoint? Or do you think that's just a different side of the same coin of taking advantage of people in minority communities who aren't able to do anything about a project they don't want?
BULLARD: Well, you know, the - you can't wash race out of it even if you talk about income and poverty and wealth. You know, if you talk about this whole idea of - why is it that some communities don't have residential amenities? Why some communities don't have the parks - green space? You can talk about redlining, and you can talk about racism embedded in this whole idea that some people have more than their fair share of things that other people don't want. And it's not just income and wealth - middle-income African Americans who make 50 to $60,000 are more likely live in neighborhoods that are more polluted and have more of these locally unwanted land uses than whites who make $10,000.
So it's not just the low property values and low wealth. Who gets appointed to these boards and commissions? It's all embedded in race. And you can't wash it out as a poverty thing, or people are just, you know, not concerned or don't care. And again, a lot of it goes into who has power. In many cases, our cities, as they develop - you had majority-Black populations in regions - in counties where there was no county commission or persons elected to office to vote.
DETROW: What sort of policies could start to undo the damage that you've been studying and talking about?
BULLARD: As a matter of fact, it's not that difficult. There's a whole movement today that's taking down highways and freeways that ran through the middle of Black communities in our cities.
DETROW: Can you point to a promising project on that front?
BULLARD: Well, there's a project going on in New Orleans. There are projects - you know, in some cases in - when the freeways came down in the Bay Area, you know, that ran through East - West Oakland or Seattle and Portland and some other cities. It can be done, but the strategy is to what extent you take them down and allow for communities that would benefit when you destroyed communities - now you're going to provide land and space and opportunities for other people to come in. And somehow you have to make sure that you don't create another problem by gentrifying your area.
The racial justice and equity lens has to be applied for policies when we talk about solutions. And again, when we talk about green transportation, we talk about having light rail lines and access to public transportation to get people out of their cars. We have to make sure that we don't end up creating, you know, clean electric vehicles in terms of public transit for the more affluent and leave the dirty diesel buses stuck on the south side.
DETROW: Professor Robert Bullard is the author of 18 books, including "Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes To Equity." Thank you so much for joining us.
BULLARD: My pleasure.
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