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The highway history that Republicans really ought to know

Some on the right don't like Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg talking about racism in highway infrastructure, but that doesn't mean he's wrong.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg appeared in the White House press briefing room yesterday to help celebrate the bipartisan infrastructure package that will soon become law. A reporter asked about "the racism that was built into the roadways," which the secretary had discussed in a separate interview yesterday morning.

Buttigieg replied, "I'm still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a Black neighborhood, or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach — or that would have been — in New York was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices."

The cabinet secretary added, "I don't think we have anything to lose by confronting that simple reality. And I think we have everything to gain by acknowledging it and then dealing with it."

Buttigieg's willingness to confronting this simple reality sparked immediate pushback from the right. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz pried himself away from Big Bird complaints to mock Buttigieg's assessment. "The roads are racist," the Texan wrote sarcastically on Twitter. "We must get rid of roads."

The problem — one of them, anyway — is that Buttigieg was right. The story he told was and is true. As a Washington Post analysis explained yesterday:

The secretary was referring to a story from Robert Caro's "The Power Broker," a book that is generally recognized as one of the premier examples of journalism in modern American history. It centers on Robert Moses, a mid-century New York City official who set out to reshape how the city's residents moved — mostly successfully. In that book, Caro describes one particular goal of Moses's: keeping poor Black people from busing to Long Island's Jones Beach.

Moses quite deliberately, and for entirely racist reasons, created a system to discourage Black and Puerto Rican kids from visiting Jones Beach, in part by building parkway bridges so low that buses couldn't fit below them. What's more, as the Post's report added, "buses needed permits to enter parks, permits that were often denied to those bringing Black residents to Jones Beach."

To his credit, Buttigieg has spent months talking about the problem of racism built into the nation's transportation system, and while much of the right has pushed back, reality is on the secretary's side.

NPR reported in April, "Planners of the interstate highway system, which began to take shape after the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, routed some highways directly, and sometimes purposefully, through Black and brown communities. In some instances, the government took homes by eminent domain."

Around the same time, The Tampa Bay Times added, "In city after city, highways of the Interstate era and before have prompted the demolition or fragmentation of Black neighborhoods — due, historians say, to a combination of racism, lower acquisition costs for real estate, and weaker political muscle to oppose the projects."

Two years earlier, historian Kevin Kruse examined Atlanta's congested system for The New York Times and explained, "In Atlanta, as in dozens of cities across America, daily congestion is a direct consequence of a century-long effort to segregate the races. For much of the nation's history, the campaign to keep African Americans 'in their place' socially and politically manifested itself in an effort to keep them quite literally in one place or another."

In 2015, a Washington Post analysis documented similar racism in transportation infrastructure in several major American cities, including Pittsburgh, Hartford, Tampa, Shreveport, Kansas City, St. Louis, Buffalo, Detroit, and Milwaukee.

When the Transportation secretary talks about this, it apparently makes some conservatives uncomfortable. That does not, however, make Buttigieg wrong.