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Things in America Connected to Race and Racism: All


Scott mentioned the 1619 Project at the Times a couple of days ago and I want to go back to this to mention Kevin Kruse, historian and King of Twitter, who wrote on the connections between interstate highways and segregation, using Atlanta, the city to busy to care, as an example.

This intertwined history of infrastructure and racial inequality extended into the 1950s and 1960s with the creation of the Interstate highway system. The federal government shouldered nine-tenths of the cost of the new Interstate highways, but local officials often had a say in selecting the path. As in most American cities in the decades after the Second World War, the new highways in Atlanta — local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities. This was a common practice not just in Southern cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Richmond and Tampa, but in countless metropolises across the country, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Syracuse and Washington.

While Interstates were regularly used to destroy black neighborhoods, they were also used to keep black and white neighborhoods apart. Today, major roads and highways serve as stark dividing lines between black and white sections in cities like Buffalo, Hartford, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place.

And note that while Kruse is talking about Atlanta, this is by no means a southern phenomena, as is nothing about racism. I’ve been doing some research about the civil rights movement in Seattle in the 60s. There was a crossburning in Wallingford, the venerable neighborhood just west of the university, when a black family moved in. Voters overwhelmingly rejected fair housing ordinances, saying they weren’t racist, but what about their property values. Employers such as Safeway resisted hiring black workers, saying it would be “reverse discrimination” against whites. I’m not sure whether I-5 was driven through the city’s black neighborhood, which was much smaller than Atlanta’s. But the basic outlines are always the same.

This is why it drives me crazy when people here get so angry over the idea that their schooling choices aren’t driven by racism. It’s all the same set of arguments, no matter the place or era. No one is actually racist. I’m just looking out for my children or property values. Why should I be the one to sacrifice? Aren’t those places dangerous or subpar? Our school systems and residential patterns are equally shaped by race. They were in 1960 and they are in 2019, when schools are as segregated as they ever were in most parts of the country. And until white self-proclaimed progressives own up to this and seek to fight it actively, in Atlanta or Seattle or wherever you live, we–i.e. white people and thus the nation’s power structures–aren’t going to do anything useful to actually fight racism in an active way.

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