“White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes”: Advancing Racial Equity Through Highway Reconstruction
Racial and economic segregation in urban communities is often understood as a natural consequence of poor choices by individuals. In reality, racially and economically segregated cities are the result of many factors, including the nation’s interstate highway system. In states around the country, highway construction displaced Black households and cut the heart and soul out of thriving Black communities as homes, churches, schools, and businesses were destroyed. In other communities, 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. In these ways, construction of the interstate highway system contributed to the residential concentration of race and poverty and created physical, economic, and psychological barriers that persist.
Today, the interstate highway system is on the verge of transformational change as aging highways around the country are crumbling or insufficient to meet growing demand and must be rebuilt or replaced. The possibility of significant infrastructure development offers an opportunity to redress some of the harm caused by the interstate highway system, to strengthen impacted communities, and to advance racial equity. Still, there is a risk that federal, state, and local highway builders will repeat the sins of the past at the expense of communities of color whose homes, businesses, and community institutions again stand in the path of the bulldozers. Moreover, there is reason to believe that traditional civil rights laws, standing alone, are insufficient to redress the structural and institutional racism that shaped the interstate highway system and continues to threaten communities of color as the highways are rebuilt.
This Article is the first in the legal literature to explore in depth the racial equity concerns and opportunities raised by modern highway redevelopment. It also builds on the work of legal scholars who advocate for addressing systemic racial inequality by requiring that policymakers conduct a thorough and comprehensive analysis of how a proposed action, policy, or practice will affect racial and ethnic groups. The Article concludes by proposing a way forward for highway redevelopment projects: requiring jurisdictions to complete comprehensive racial equity impact studies prior to any construction. Racial equity impact studies have been used or proposed in various contexts to reform racialized institutions and structures. This Article argues that highway redevelopment projects should join this growing list.
Deborah N. Archer