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Highways become a culture war battlefield

·Senior White House Correspondent
·11-min read
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WASHINGTON — With its six lanes plowing through New York City's northernmost borough, the Cross Bronx Expressway is an unsightly, congested river of pavement whose creation upended city neighborhoods so that commuters could flee with greater ease to the suburbs.

At a recent press conference held in the Bronx, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres, a rising star in the House who represents the Bronx, touted a plan to cover the noisy, dirty highway with a grass- and tree-filled dome that would reduce the pollution in surrounding neighborhoods. Funding would come, at least in part, from the new $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

The highway, Torres said, is "both literally and metaphorically a structure of racism."

Sen. Chuck Schumer and other elected officials, including Rep. Ritchie Torres, at right, hold a press conference on plans to
Sen. Chuck Schumer and other elected officials, including Rep. Ritchie Torres, at right, hold a press conference on plans to "cap" the Cross Bronx Expressway. (Steve Sanchez/Pacific Press/Shutterstock)

While that view may be uncontroversial to progressives, people of color and academics, it may be new to many white Americans. That presents both an opportunity and a challenge to Democrats who want to govern with an eye on social justice issues they believe have been long neglected.

A culture war could be in the making, in other words, with the (pre-pandemic) morning commute at the center of the controversy.

The infrastructure bill just signed by President Biden contains $1 billion for Reconnecting Communities, a program intended to "remove or retrofit infrastructure barriers like highway overpasses and depressed highways." Other federal funds could be marshaled for that purpose as well, a Department of Transportation spokesperson told Yahoo News, since each mile of significant highway redesign will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

This aerial view shows the Cross Bronx Expressway under construction in New York City in 1960.
The Cross Bronx Expressway under construction in New York City in 1960. (AP)

The spokesperson declined to discuss on the record with Yahoo News the racial equity ramifications of infrastructure funding.

The complex dynamics of infrastructure funding became evident last week, in a potential preview of what to expect once infrastructure funds start flowing to states and the 2022 congressional midterms near. In a White House briefing last Monday, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg alluded to the racism of longtime New York City construction czar Robert Moses, who built the Cross Bronx and other highways, ruthlessly forcing out thousands of poor and minority residents in the process.

Deploying the wide-ranging sophistication that attracted supporters during the 2020 presidential primary, Buttigieg summoned an anecdote from "The Power Broker," a celebrated biography of Moses by Robert Caro. Moses ordered that overpasses on the Southern State Parkway be built too low for buses carrying relatively diverse riders from New York City to the Long Island beaches he had designed.

The Southern State Parkway in Lakeview, N.Y., in 1957, as drivers headed from New York City to the beaches on Long Island.
The Southern State Parkway in Lakeview, N.Y., in 1957, as drivers headed from New York City to the beaches on Long Island. (Cliff de Bear/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

"That obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices," Buttigieg concluded. "I don't think we have anything to lose by confronting that simple reality."

These words proved an irresistible provocation to a Republican Party that has increasingly looked to racial controversies as an electoral strategy. On issues like how to teach history, Republicans have found traction with a visceral appeal that disguises factual inconsistencies. They plainly hope highways will prove a similarly winning issue.

"The roads are racist. We must get rid of roads," Sen. Ted Cruz wrote on Twitter with evident sarcasm after Buttigieg's comments went viral.

"Roads can't be racist," Fox News host Tucker Carlson fulminated later that evening. "You can't build racism into a road," he said, despite the fact that urban planners had done just that in San Francisco, where he was born; Hartford, Conn., where he went to college; and South Florida, where he now lives.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during the daily briefing at the White House.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. (Susan Walsh/AP)

"To me, a road's a road," said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump understudy who was born in Jacksonville, where the construction of I-95 destroyed the historically African American neighborhood of LaVilla, once known as the Harlem of the South.

In fact, the motivation of some road building was brazenly racist, making claims like the ones DeSantis made difficult to defend on purely factual grounds. The Mongtomery, Ala., neighborhood of Oak Park, a vibrant African American community where leaders of the civil rights movement lived, attracted the ire of state highway director Sam Engelhardt, an unabashed racist whose motto was "I stand for white supremacy segregation." He situated I-85 according to his racial beliefs, diminishing Oak Park and cutting it off from the rest of the city, from which the neighborhood has never recovered.

Racist intentions can be discerned without much difficulty in projects across the country, from the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles to the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans. Original intentions may not make a difference to some, but in a culture increasingly occupied with historical reckoning, those intentions are coming under a scrutiny from which they had been exempt for decades.

Aerial view of urban downtown Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Interstate 10 freeway.
Downtown Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Interstate 10 freeway. (trekandshoot/Shutterstock)

"Historically, American infrastructure investments not only failed to support communities of color equitably, but those investments have often been used as effective tools of white supremacy," New York University historian and American Civil Liberties Union board president Deborah N. Archer told Yahoo News in an email.

Archer's recent Vanderbilt Law Review article, "White Men's Roads Through Black Men's Homes," argued that urban segregation and the chronic poverty it fosters are the result not of "poor choices by individuals" but of intentional decisions that are evidence of a structural racism that is entrenched in American history.

"The highway system was a tool of a segregationist agenda, erecting a wall that separated White and Black communities and protected White people from Black migration," Archer wrote.

Seen in that light, the Eisenhower Expressway running through Chicago is a means not merely to convey people but also to divide them, a contributor to some of the most thorough segregation in any American city.

Republicans, meanwhile, are defending highways like the Eisenhower and the Cross Bronx, and not simply because they see themselves as the tribunes of car-happy suburbanites. The invocation of infrastructural racism has turned a battle over urban planning into one focused on more profound matters including American history and national legacy.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago. (Getty Images)

After all, the interstate system envisioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower stitched the nation together, according to popular history. The highways were a modernizing influence too, much as railroads had been a century before. "An engineering marvel," the Christian Science Monitor called the interstate system in 1999.

More recently, though, that mythology has been questioned. The 2019 Academy Award for best picture went to "Green Book," a film based on a true story that vividly countered the mythology of the open road by pointing out that the road was open only to whites. (The real-life Green Book was a guide for African Americans seeking motels, gas stations and other venues that would cater to them.)

The growing recognition of infrastructural racism, combined with an increasing alarm about the inevitability of climate change, has led the Biden administration to attempt to rebalance transportation spending, with more emphasis on mass transit and increasing pedestrian and bicycle access to roads.

By encouraging driving and incentivizing suburban sprawl, highway construction embodies the late-20th-century lifestyle that left Americans with one of the largest per capita carbon footprints worldwide. The president and his allies argue that these policies are no longer ecologically sustainable, not to mention unfair from the very start.

Covering up the highway, or getting rid of it altogether, would have a huge symbolic weight, not unlike tearing down a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

An exhibit shows plans to make the Cross Bronx Expressway environmentally safer for New York City.
An exhibit shows plans to make the Cross Bronx Expressway environmentally safer for New York City. (Steve Sanchez/Pacific Press/Shutterstock)

"If people in 2021 are suffering from a discriminatory policy funded by the federal government, then we have a responsibility to fix it," Buttigieg told Yahoo News in Glasgow last week, defending the comments he'd made in Washington days before.

Buttigieg's own political future — he is widely expected to seek the presidency again at some point — will likely depend on whether he can meet both the social and the material imperatives of the infrastructure package. "Buttigieg's star rises as $1T Biden agenda shifts toward him," went a recent Associated Press headline.

The highway initiative will also allow the young and ambitious secretary to work with African American and Hispanic leaders and communities, a valuable opportunity for the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who had trouble winning over Black and Latino voters in 2020.

Republicans see an opening, one similar to the divide on public schooling they recently exploited in Virginia to win the governorship there. Indeed, the conservative activist Tom Fitton all but broadcast that strategy in an awkward tweet in which he tried to align the two issues with "infrastruCRTure." CRT is the initialism for critical race theory, an academic approach to assessing the racial impact of laws and policies that Republicans and conservatives have hyperbolically deployed in recent months as a catchall for any educational approach to systemic racism, a topic they do not believe belongs in public school classrooms.

Electoral considerations are unquestionably at work, but it is also the case that conservatives don't share the worldview that holds racism as systemic and climate catastrophe as problematic.

"Midcentury road projects displaced blacks and whites alike," a Wall Street Journal op-ed declared in April, when the contours of Biden's plan were coming into focus. "Tearing them down now won't help."

Ardent climate science skeptic Steve Milloy, who was a top Environmental Protection Agency transition official for the Trump administration, believes that while it may be a good idea, the reasoning deployed by Democrats is flawed.

"This is all a hoax," Milloy wrote in an email to Yahoo News about the environmental justice claims made by Torres of the Bronx and others. "There is nobody in America who is harmed by what's in the air," Milloy went on to say. Pressed on his contention that driving poses no public health hazards, Milloy contended in a subsequent email that “no real world evidence shows PM kills,” using an initialism for particulate matter. (The World Health Organization says, "Air pollution kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year.")

If progressives say correcting infrastructural racism is necessary, some moderate Democrats worry about a framing that could motivate Republicans more than it does their own side.

Just days before Buttigieg made his cameo in the White House Briefing Room, the Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin had managed to defeat Democratic favorite Terry McAuliffe to win the Virginia governorship, in part by campaigning heavily on the claim that Democrats were injecting progressive ideology about race and gender into school curricula.

Opponents of the academic doctrine known as critical race theory hold protest signs outside of the Loudoun County School Board headquarters, in Ashburn, Va.
Opponents of critical race theory protest in Ashburn, Va. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Democrats argued that critical race theory was not taught in schools and that, in any case, there was nothing improper about discussing racism with children. But Youngkin's argument boosted support for his insurgent candidacy in rural areas and the crucial suburbs of northern Virginia and Richmond; the same state that awarded a half million more votes to Joe Biden than Donald Trump in last year's presidential contest suddenly turned surprisingly red.

CRT is almost certain to become a rallying cry for Republicans in the 2022 congressional midterms. So could highways and the debate over their role in fostering racism. After all, conservatives attacked Biden's then boss, President Barack Obama, for a proposed $3.4 million "turtle tunnel" in the $787 billion stimulus bill in 2009. Such wildlife tunnels have become commonplace since then, but that is beside the point.

Nor is Republican opposition the only challenge for Democrats as funds begin to flow. Putting a green cover over only 2.5 miles of the Cross Bronx would cost an estimated $760 million, thus eating up most of the $1 billion reserved for the Reconnecting Communities program, which was supposed to originally include $20 billion in funding.

Moreover, if the Bronx, New York City's poorest borough, becomes a more attractive place to live, it could exacerbate the risk of gentrification, a process that has already caused skyrocketing housing prices in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The same could be true in other cities too, with federal dollars inadvertently benefiting moneyed white collar workers instead of people who had been harmed by segregation.

"All of this is not without risk," NYU historian Archer said. But she believes the risk is thoroughly worth it.

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