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America's Highway System Is a Monument to Environmental Racism and a History of Inequity

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An aerial drone shot of a huge multilane freeway cutting through a dense urban setting.
Interstate 980 and the 14th Street, 12th Street and 11th Street overpasses, from left, are seen from this drone view in Oakland, on May 4, 2021. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

Tremé is widely considered the oldest Black neighborhood in America.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, according to historians, free Black people were steered to Tremé, a neighborhood in New Orleans that abuts the French Quarter, because they could purchase property on land that was once a plantation. A thriving, racially diverse community steeped in Creole culture emerged. Often, Tremé is referred to as the oldest-surviving Black neighborhood in America, a distinction that drives home the ruinous legacy of racism in this country.

Claiborne Avenue in Tremé was once the economic and cultural center of Black New Orleans, a bustling road lined by oak trees, theaters, bars, restaurants, other businesses and homes. Back when the city’s annual parade and carnival before the Christian fasting of Lent was segregated, Black Mardi Gras was celebrated on the Claiborne Avenue corridor. The revelry crashed to a halt in the mid-1960s when the oak trees were felled to make room for an elevated portion of Interstate 10.

“Right through Tremé,” New Orleans resident Lloyd Kelly told me. “The interstate goes right through the thriving business district of the Black community, the heart of the Black community. They put the I-10 right through it.”

I met Kelly, who is Black, at the California Reparations Task Force meeting earlier this month in Sacramento. The task force is examining the historic harms of enslavement and anti-Black racism in the state. In July, the task force will present its recommendations for dismantling the roadblocks to progress. Kelly was there to talk about reparations eligibility, an issue that has vexed the task force.

Before I continue, here’s a brief lesson in American history: In 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act paved the way for the nation’s interstate system. But ribbon-cutting politicians weren’t interested in making drivers take the scenic route. The projects plowed through areas where Black people flourished, accelerating America’s hostility toward the descendants of the enslaved.

A middle-aged African American man with a cap and white and blue plaid long-sleeve shirt seen from the waist up looks out a window with buildings outside the window.
Lloyd Kelly, from New Orleans, sits outside the room where the California Reparations Task Force met in Sacramento on March 3, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As the country marched toward abolishing racial segregation, the targeted destruction of Black communities wasn’t an accident. Private property was seized by eminent domain. Hundreds of neighborhoods across the country were demolished. More than 1 million people were displaced, according to U.S. Department of Transportation estimates.

Six decades ago, the open road was a symbol of American ingenuity. Now, America’s aging highway system serves as a monument to environmental racism.

The interstates were built around Black and brown neighborhoods, cementing racial divides and isolating people of color. Some interstates bisected neighborhoods. The expressways connected predominantly white commuters, who sought homogeneity in the suburbs, to offices in the cities they had fled. The massive migration is colloquially known as “white flight.”

Today, gas-guzzling cars and trucks clogging freeways pollute the air in neighborhoods, leading to asthma and other respiratory issues — and a shorter life expectancy. But cities are considering a remedy: highway removal.

My colleagues at Above the Noise, KQED’s YouTube series that investigates controversial subjects, broke down the history of this country’s obsession with highways — and how cities are attempting to repair decades of environmental racism — in a recent video.

“In the case of freeways, they didn’t really care about the people that they were affecting on the ground in these communities, largely for racist reasons, to put it bluntly,” Chris Sensenig, an urban designer and founder of ConnectOakland, told Myles Bess, host of Above the Noise.

ConnectOakland has been working to reimagine Interstate 980, the 2-mile stretch that connects Interstate 580 and State Route 24 to Interstate 880.

Interstate 980 disconnected West Oakland’s Black residents from downtown.

In March 2021, President Joe Biden released The American Jobs Plan, which included $20 billion to “redress historic inequities and build the future of transportation infrastructure.” As Bess says in the video, it’s “a PC way of saying ‘reparations.’” The plan, which uses the expressway that runs through the heart of Tremé in New Orleans as an example of a historic inequity, passed in November, narrowly avoiding legislative gridlock caused by the tunnel vision of a Republican-controlled Congress.

Last summer, the state reparations task force published an exhaustive interim report. To repair the racial discrimination in past policy decisions, the task force preliminarily recommended the state “identify and address the impact of environmental racism on predominantly Black communities including, but not limited to, unequal exposure to pollutants associated with roadway and heavy truck traffic,” among other proposals.

“The harm to Black people has been multilayered, comprehensive and constant for centuries, so the repair has to be multilayered, comprehensive and constant,” Lisa Holder, a racial justice scholar and a task force member, told me.

An African American woman smiles during a conversation with an African American man in a suit with empty seats in a conference hall in the background.
Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, and Lisa Holder speak during the second day of an in-person meeting of the California Reparations Task Force at the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco on April 14, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“We need to analyze the data and quantify it and come up with a comprehensive way to pay people back for what they lost because of these highway building projects,” Holder continued. “All the equity that they lost in the property that they built and also the cultural genocide — we need to come up with a qualitative response and to quantify that.”

There were supposed to be two highway projects in New Orleans, but local officials were able to stop the one that would’ve rolled through the French Quarter. The people who protested the project in Tremé were ignored like backseat drivers. Kelly supports California’s effort, but he believes reparations won’t have a generational impact without being considered on the federal level. He’s right. According to research and data published in 2020 by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, approximately 10 million enslaved people across the country “contributed 410 billion hours of labor” — free labor — to build wealth for others.

“I will never ask for one penny for the atrocities of slavery,” Kelly said. “I’m not going to ask you to pay me for the lashes you put on my back. I’m not going to ask you to repay me for the women who were raped. The second I do that, I have put a price on myself.

“I will ask you for the payment that is owed to me.”

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