In remarks at a White House news briefing yesterday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg connected the dots between the recently passed $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a higher calling for his work at the agency.
The moment came when April D. Ryan, D.C. Bureau chief for TheGrio, asked, “Can you give us the construct on how you will deconstruct the racism that was built into the roadways?”
It was familiar territory for the one-time Presidential candidate.
In the past, Buttigieg had said that he understood that some of the problems with the country’s infrastructure had to do with the racist underpinnings of past decisions, specifically, the placement of highways, the elimination of neighborhoods, and the size and placement of bridges.
“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,” he began, “or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach—or it 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. I don’t think we have anything to lose by confronting that simple reality.” He said he plans to direct some of the funds to “reconnect communities that have been divided by sometimes discriminatory construction in the past.”
His remarks immediately activated the “anti-woke” crowd.
A video clip of his remarks bounced around Twitter, and were roundly mocked by Senators Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn, along with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
But Buttigieg understands his assignment because he understands—and cares about—history.
He was referring to an anecdote in “The Power Broker,” an expansive work of journalism from Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Robert Caro. The broker in question was Robert Moses, an official of ruthless ambition who successfully redesigned how New York City residents worked, banked, voted, lived, and moved across the 20th century. He was motivated by an almost unquenchable quest for power, which was informed by deep-seated racism and classicism.
Washington Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, validated Buttigieg’s point on Twitter, by posting relevant sections from the book.
“See especially pages 318-319: ‘He began to limit access by buses; he instructed Shapiro to build the bridges across his new parkways low — too low for buses to pass…Bus trips therefore had to be made on local roads, making the trips discouraging long and arduous. For Negroes, who he considered inherently ‘dirty,’ there were further measures. Buses needed permits to enter state parks; buses chartered by Negro groups …found it very difficult to obtain permits, especially to Moses’s beloved Jones Beach; most were shunted off to parks many miles further on Long Island.” There’s much, much more. Easily one of the best nonfiction books ever written.”
But Buttigieg’s broader point that if it happened in New York, it happened lots of other places, too, is also borne out by the facts.
Another historian, Kevin Kruse, tackled the issue in a contribution to The 1619 Project, published by The New York Times Magazine in 2019. It begins with an exploration of the traffic problems plaguing Atlanta, Georgia—a ghost, he says of a century-long effort to segregate the races. “Before the Civil War, white masters kept enslaved African-Americans close at hand to coerce their labor and guard against revolts,” he writes. “But with the abolition of slavery, the spatial relationship was reversed. Once they had no need to keep constant watch over African-Americans, whites wanted them out of sight. Civic planners pushed them into ghettos, and the segregation we know today became the rule.”
This thinking became baked into racist lending practices called redlining, that further ensured that tax-supported social systems like education, health care, and policing would be deeply inadequate. This set up a condition of systemic inequity that continues to impact the futures of Black, brown, immigrant and poor people to this day.
This thinking is the reason why raceAhead remains necessary.
The original premise for this column was to examine the lives of Black, brown, AAPI and other under-represented people from birth to C-Suite, to better understand where and why they’re lost to the “talent pipeline.”
The premise has become my road map to explore the history of power and equity in the U.S., a journey made more terrifying by the anecdote that Buttigieg correctly focused on: That a single man bent on power made sure that entire generations of Black families couldn’t enjoy the beach that their tax dollars helped pay for. (Or anything else, for that matter.)
But the Robert Moses story is also baked into my personal mantra: It’s our job to notice who is not in the room—on the board, in your executive team, in your supplier network, on your team, and yes, even at your favorite beach—and ask why. In the “why” lies the work.
Moses wasn’t alone then, and he isn’t now.
Many times, the “why” will lead you back to someone like Robert Moses, but lots of times, you’ll discover regular people who quietly enabled racist systems. Maybe they didn’t understand them. Maybe they felt too vulnerable to speak against them. Maybe they believed the racist ideas that informed them. But I remain convinced that the dismal representation numbers in corporate leadership won’t budge until we start confronting those simple realities, even if they’re uncomfortable.
A struggling HBCU gets a second chance thanks to a $50 million donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Prairie View A&M University, in Prarie View, Texas is not one of the more well-known HBCUs, but the money seems to be responsible for cautious optimism, according to this piece. President Ruth Simmons has expanded the endowment, started a writing program, is establishing a center on race and justice, and has earmarked $10 million for student grants. Founded in 1876, the school is built on a former agricultural site where Black people were enslaved. It is the second oldest public university in the state.
New York Times
Sundance Institute launched its first-ever program for trans filmmakers The Trans Possibilities Intensive is a new, virtual fellowship program designed to help six, promising trans filmmakers of color to develop their projects. The program was designed and led by Sundance’s Outreach & Inclusion and Indigenous Programs coordinator Moi Santos. “This Intensive is the result of ongoing and evolving priorities through Sundance’s Outreach and Inclusion work and a year of thoughtful and intentional planning, heartfelt commitment and a belief in supporting transgender storytellers of color and their stories,” Santos said in a statement. Read the Hollywood Reporter article to learn more about the fellowship and meet the inaugural six
Linguist John McWhorter says the woke have gone too far In a new book, Columbia University professor John McWhorter argues that the cultural left is dominated by people "whose devotion is less to changing lives for people who need help than showing that they understand that racism and especially systemic racism exists,” he tells NPR. In Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, McWhorter says that the banishing from public life of people who have made a mistake is too much. “I think that there's an extent to which any society is going to have taboos, and that taboos can be useful. But I also think that we are tending to take that sort of thing a little too far in the name of the idea that our job is to signal that we know racism exists.”
Did the pandemic change the whiteness of camping? People of color, as we know so well, were excluded from national parks by design. That feeling of unwelcome extended to the entire camping industry. But as Elizabeth Segran puts it, it can get culturally complicated for many people. “My Indian father and Chinese mother thought the concept of camping was absurd,” she writes. But she cites new research that shows that the pandemic may have changed the extraordinary whiteness of the pastime. “For the first time, the representation of campers is beginning to align with the demographics of the United States. In 2020, 63% of campers were white; 12% were Black, 13% were Hispanic, and 7% were Asian,” she writes, citing research from research from KOA, the largest network of campgrounds in the US. And 60% of first-time campers in 2020 were non-white.
This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.
Meet Robert Moses’s most effective nemesis To the extent that New York City has maintained its fundamental charm in many neighborhoods is a testament to Jane Jacobs, a Canadian American journalist and urban thinker who brought a powerful oppositional energy to Moses’s plan to remake the city to suit his needs. Her theory of change involves the strength of urban systems, though she was billed at the time as “primarily a housewife with unusual abilities to observe and defend the domestic surroundings of her Greenwich Village home.” The myth-making did her a grave disservice; she was in fact a dedicated urbanist with a strong sense of the fragility of democratic systems. And she stopped Moses in his tracks.
What did we learn from the 2015 HUD settlement? This story explores the 2015 HUD settlement with Wisconsin’s largest bank for discrimination against black and Hispanic mortgage borrowers in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota from 2008 to 2010, people who were exactly as credit-worthy as white borrowers on the other side of the red line. But the story is a reminder that historic redlining, which began in the 1930s, is an integral part of the American experience for many people. “If your family was denied a mortgage in the 1930s, or the 1950s, or the 1970s, then you may not have the family wealth or down payment help to become a homeowner today.” (To answer the question in the headline, probably nothing.)
Cities are segregated by design, the backstory Housing segregation and discrimination have shaped the lives of people in the country for decades–since 1934, to be exact–when maps drawn up by the government-sponsored Home Owner’s Loan Corporation tried to identify neighborhoods most likely to default on a brand new product called a 30-year mortgage. This invention of the New Deal also invented “red-lining” or the identification of neighborhoods with “foreigners,” “low-class whites,” and “Negroes.” This excellent, seven-minute video, narrated by NPR’s Gene Demby, draws a straight line between the Depression-era discriminatory lending to the creation of ghettos, environmental racism, poor schools, over-aggressive policing and the unique phenomenon of Martin Luther King Boulevards.
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