'The Wrong Complexion For Protection.' How Race Shaped America's Roadways And Cities An expert in urban planning and environmental policy explains how race has played a central role in how cities across America developed — often in ways that hurt minority communities.

'The Wrong Complexion For Protection.' How Race Shaped America's Roadways And Cities

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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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