Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash
- Follow and support efforts to reconnect Rondo, a Black St. Paul neighborhood devastated by highway construction.
- Support and donate to efforts to remove Chester, PA’s trash incinerator.
- Consider: Is public infrastructure better or worse in different places around where you live? Are there state or local initiatives you can support to demand infrastructure equity?
U.S. society is incredibly unequal, and it’s only getting worse. The gap between rich and poor more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, while the gap between Black and white household income has only increased since the 1980s (Pew). The average white American has eight times the net worth of the average Black American (Forbes). And the top 1% has 42% of the nation’s wealth (Inequality). The well-off and poor go to different schools (Harvard Gazette), eat different foods (National Geographic), and stay alive for different amounts of time (Brookings).
But there are public services we all use: sanitation and utilities, sidewalks and roads. You might think that public investment in such services would benefit everyone alike. Such thinking is the rationale between policies like Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan (Smart Asset), which would earmark just a small portion of total funding to address equity issues (Hola Bird). But existing infrastructure and public services not only demonstrate the extent of American inequality — they facilitate it, too. Community organizations around the country are fighting for quality infrastructure that’s actually for everyone.
Research indicates that having more green areas can reduce neighborhood violence. But as in many cities, “the most distressed, vulnerable and diverse (mostly Black) areas of Philadelphia with high crime” are the ones with the least tree cover. They’re also the neighborhoods with more potholes, cracked sidewalks, and “sprawling trash” (Philadelphia Citizen). The garbage problem in Philly is so bad that some have taken to calling raccoons “Philadelphia Trash Pandas” (Inquirer). But “trash pandas” don’t often prowl affluent white neighborhoods, though garbage collection, like road and sidewalk repairs, is a municipal service supposedly provided to all.
And though Brown v. Board of Education outlawed explicit racial segregation in schools almost 70 years ago, de facto racial segregation never ended. Half of American public school students attend schools that are overwhelmingly white or nonwhite. This matters because white school districts get $23 billion more than nonwhite districts each year (NPR). Even integrated schools lose resources when affluent white parents pull their children out to attend private schools instead — whether or not those parents feel “a lot of guilt” about their decisions (Huffington Post). Wild disparities in funding-per-student in American schools combine with ongoing segregation to make education another vastly unequal public good.
But it’s not just that public infrastructure for marginalized communities is worse. Infrastructure development has actively harmed or destroyed some communities for the benefit of others.
The U.S. interstate highway system was built after World War II to mimic Nazi Germany’s Reichsautobahn (U.S. Army). Black neighborhoods were torn down and displaced for highway development. 1 million people lost their homes through massive, state-funded racial displacement. This “compounded discrimination and exploitation and triggered a process that weakened urban neighborhoods, from which they have never fully recovered” (PBS). To this day, oppressed communities are more likely to be cut out of public transportation networks and face higher rates of pollution and asthma due to proximity to highways (Slate). In education, trash collection, and road repairs as well, the “opportunity hoarding” in affluent areas is facilitated by deficits in public services for others (CNN).
Public services can be public goods. But they should be targeted at the areas with the most need, not the most wealth. Though the U.S. has destitute communities of every race (The Guardian), American white supremacy makes race “among the most powerful and durable axes along which inequality is organized” (Harvard). The Federal Highway Act didn’t single out Black communities. The Department of Education isn’t following guidelines to disempower children of color. But race- and class-blind infrastructure development only deepen American inequalities. Those with more power advocate for a greater share of state resources for themselves. The needs of working-class communities of color are ignored, though it was their work that created the affluence of those hoarding resources today (The Nation, Reuters). Equitable infrastructure for communities of color isn’t charity. It’s but a portion of what’s owed.
Community organizations are fighting for infrastructure equity across the country, ReConnect Rondo is fighting for a land bridge between parts of a historically Black neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota that was bisected by I-94 (ReConnect Rondo). CRCQL is fighting to get Pennsylvania’s largest trash incinerator out of the predominantly Black working-class city of Chester (CRCQL). Unite with grassroots efforts to demand infrastructure for all, wherever you live.
- Public infrastructure and services are supposed to benefit everyone.
- Deep inequalities in service provision exacerbate social inequalities.
- Communities of color have been actively harmed and displaced to provide public services for others.