In the 1977 song “We Almost Lost Detroit,” the poet Gil Scott-Heron tells the story of Fermi 1, an expensive nuclear reactor in Michigan that suffered a partial meltdown roughly a decade earlier. When the reactor was built in the 1950s, officials from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission overruled experts, who advised that placing a nuclear plant so close to Detroit could pose a “public hazard.”
Although no one died, the incident was just one example of the many ways in which Americans have been endangered by the historic greed and neglect of U.S. infrastructure policy.
Or, as Scott-Heron put it:
Just thirty miles from Detroit
Stands a giant power station
It ticks each night as the city sleeps
Seconds from annihilation
But no one stopped to think about the people
Or how they would survive
And we almost lost Detroit
How would we ever get over…
Losing our minds?”
In recent years, a combination of human-made and natural catastrophes, from busted water pipes to raging wildfires, have brought America’s raggedy infrastructure into focus and demonstrated who is harmed most by its failures.
For that reason, there has never been a better time for progressive-minded thinkers to make the case for more infrastructure spending. The Biden administration is taking advantage by pitching a comprehensive infrastructure reform plan as a response to climate- and energy-related disasters. After months of negotiations, the Senate last month passed a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which faces hurdles in the House. The road to better roads is a complicated one.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is pushing for the Senate infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion spending plan written by House Democrats to be passed together, drawing criticism from Republicans. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are seeking to pass the $3.5 trillion package through a process known as reconciliation, which under Senate rules means it can be passed with 50 Democratic votes alone, thus evading Republican opposition. But two Democratic moderates — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — may derail that effort.
Still, the passage of either bill — and the resulting influx of cash into American infrastructure — won’t be enough for the White House to declare victory.
There are heightened expectations for the upcoming surge of community investment to address people U.S. policy has neglected — in recent years and throughout history. Fortunately, there are signs the administration is addressing equity in its “rebuilding” plans.
President Joe Biden has publicly embraced some progressive, recuperative ideas like climate justice. And there is some promise in the administration’s Justice40 initiative, a guarantee to “deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.” There have also been key personnel moves, including the promotion of Shalanda Baker, the Energy Department official Biden picked to run the agency’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity.
U.S. policy has carefully carved the foundations of American infrastructure — health, a house and a job — out of their lives.
During her confirmation hearing in June, Baker, a Black woman, paid tribute to her father, who worked in a Texas oil refinery and died from years of ingesting toxic chemicals as he worked.
“If confirmed, I would be honored to help lead the administration’s transformative Justice40 initiative to ensure that communities like my father’s, as well as those whom we’ve relied on for coal, oil and gas production, have a future in the new, clean energy economy,” she said.
If Biden and congressional Democrats pass their infrastructure plans this fall, they will need to work immediately to counter distrust in communities that have been spurned by U.S. policy.
Just last year, for example, the Brookings Institution found Black- and Latino-owned businesses were given less access than white-owned businesses to the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans authorized during the pandemic. Businesses in Black and brown neighborhoods tended to receive loans last, and they were often left to borrow from lenders who offered unfavorable interest rates and poor client protections.
After lawmakers authorized more than $500 billion in federal loans to go to small businesses last year, then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused to tell them which businesses received the loans. In retrospect, and unsurprisingly, we know Mnuchin and the Small Business Administration oversaw an allocation of funds that was racist in practice.
Marginalized people have been stonewalled from participating in the trappings of citizenship. They have been denied business loans, denied home loans and forced into neighborhoods that pose a variety of health risks. In other words, U.S. policy has carefully carved the foundations of American infrastructure — health, a house and a job — out of their lives.
For the Biden White House to succeed with this upcoming windfall of federal spending, it will need to center marginalized groups in its plans with the same vigor used historically to exclude them.
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