The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The next civil rights issue of our time

Image courtesy of Flickr user <a href="">Hernán Piñera</a> , under a Creative Commons license.

Earlier this year, Maryland's new Republican governor, Larry Hogan, canceled a long-planned new transit line across Baltimore, angering city officials and residents in the mostly-black urban neighborhoods that stood to gain from the new Red Line. What's more: Hogan announced that he would spend the state money instead on roads, highways and bridges outside Maryland's largest city.

That decision, civil rights groups said Monday in a complaint filed with the federal Department of Transportation, violated the Civil Rights Act. By nixing the transit project — particularly in favor of rural and suburban highway funding — the state will disproportionately harm African Americans, they allege. And, they add, the move follows a long history in which transportation decisions in Baltimore in particular have destroyed black neighborhoods, robbed their residents of job access, and helped cement inequality there.

[NAACP to challenge cancellation of Baltimore Red Line rail project]

"Given these facts," the complaint alleges, "the cancellation of the Red Line Project, rather than being a cost-saving measure, was simply a naked transfer of resources from the project corridor’s primarily African-American population to other rural and suburban parts of the state, several of which have predominantly Caucasian populations."

The complaint, led by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, applies the fierce language of fights over housing and education to a realm where civil rights is much less often discussed.

"My hope is that with the filing of this complaint, people will understand that transportation is also a civil rights issue," says Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the LDF.

Transportation determines whether the unemployed can reach jobs. It affects how long workers must commute — and the time they lose with their families. It affects air quality and housing options and where children go to school.

[What people who live near metro stops increasingly have in common]

Transportation, Ifill argues, is a key piece of the systemic disinvestment in Baltimore behind unrest there this spring after the death in police custody of Freddie Gray.

"As much attention as we give to the trial of the officers who were charged in the killing of Freddie Gray," she says, "we should give to a decision that implicates 10,000 construction jobs and billions of infrastructure investment in Baltimore that were eliminated in a single day, by a single decision, made by a single person."

The governor's announcement came just two months after the riots in Baltimore touched off a national debate about conditions in poor urban communities. But the connection between the two, Ifill laments, went largely unnoticed.

The particular transit line at issue would have crossed the city from east to west for 14 miles, connecting neighborhoods with high unemployment and low car ownership to jobs centers downtown and on the city's edge. Today, the city has just one existing light rail line running from north to south (along with one heavy-rail line), an anemic network relative to cities like Washington and Philadelphia.

[The long, painful and repetitive history of how Baltimore became Baltimore]

For decades, Baltimore officials have drawn up and scuttled and redrawn maps for an expanded network. But those plans have repeatedly fallen apart, sometimes from opposition by white suburbs to infrastructure that residents feared would bring poverty and crime to their neighborhoods.

The Baltimore communities that never saw real transit investment, the complaint points out, were often harmed by other kinds of infrastructure, too. When the region sought to build new highways extending into the city starting in 1950s and 60s, it was primarily black neighborhoods that were chosen for demolition. In effect, black residents were displaced by highways to neighborhoods where they were later denied transit.

Their lack of mobility, Ifill says, now "holds" people in place, in communities with few options and paths out of poverty. The result, she adds, is that nurses who work at Johns Hopkins must wait on the street before dark for buses that inch them across town at 9 miles an hour, along commutes that prevent them from accompanying their children to school.

[How railroads, highways and other man-made lines racially divide America’s cities]

"This case is about the Red Line, but it’s also about so much more than just the cancelation of the Red Line," says Ajmel Quereshi, an assistant counsel at the LDF and the lead counsel on the complaint. "It’s about the history of discrimination in the state of Maryland against the residents of Baltimore when it comes to transportation and housing."

That larger story isn't particularly unique to Baltimore. Black communities have been razed by highways and denied transit in Atlanta and Buffalo. The same urban-rural politics that prioritize roads over railways play out in Detroit and Los Angeles. The same suburban fears about subway-riding robbers crop up beyond Baltimore (although the old urban legend about Georgetown is actually not true).

Because these fault lines are so common, transportation is a civil rights issue nearly anywhere. But it takes some care to draw the line between what happens in distressed communities, and how we enable people to move out of them.