The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

And this is why it’s useful to talk about historical examples of institutionalized racism

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during a news conference on Nov. 8. (Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg)

Speaking at a White House news briefing Monday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg described how the recently passed federal spending bill would allow his agency to address a number of issues and problems marring the country’s infrastructure. In response to a question, he acknowledged that that potentially meant doing away with the racism that guided past decisions on how roads and bridges were built.

The question was asked because Buttigieg has mentioned those design decisions before.

“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 said, “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.”

When the Hill shared a video of Buttigieg making that claim, it quickly (again) became a focus of mockery among right-wing commentators and some Republican politicians. But in short order, Buttigieg’s comments also served as an opportunity not only to elevate the specific story to which he was referring but the utility of educating Americans about a complicated history of systemic racism.

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 “had restricted the use of state parks by poor and lower-middle-class families in the first place, by limiting access to the parks by rapid transit,” Caro wrote, “he had vetoed the Long Island Rail Road’s proposed construction of a branch spur to Jones Beach for this reason. Now he began to limit access by buses; he instructed [general manager of the Long Island State Park Commission Sidney] 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 discouragingly long and arduous.”

What’s more, buses needed permits to enter parks, permits that were often denied to those bringing Black residents to Jones Beach.

In 2017, a reporter for Bloomberg News decided to test the veracity of this anecdote, described to Caro by Shapiro himself. Thomas Campanella found that it was true. While Moses was content to have buses be able to access other parks, the bridges along the main parkway to Jones Beach were significantly lower than the Westchester County bridges on which they were modeled. “There is just a single structure of under eight feet (96 inches) clearance on all three Westchester parkways,” Campanella wrote, while “on the Southern State there are four.”

When Buttigieg first argued this spring that infrastructure on some occasions reflected decisions rooted in racism, he had done so only in the abstract, saying that there was racism “physically built” into the country’s roads. He was mocked — and then determined to have been speaking truthfully. Now, though, even with this very specific and quite famous example in hand, his political opponents offered a similar response.

It is in fact surprising that they should. The idea that American cities made decisions about transportation that indirectly affected non-White residents negatively is not particularly controversial — nor is the idea that some decisions directly and intentionally targeted them.

Historian Kevin Kruse wrote about the history of using infrastructure as a tool to bolster racist policies for the New York Times in 2019. He described specific decisions to route highways through poor (and heavily non-White) neighborhoods, razing them to the ground. But it didn’t end there.

“While Interstates were regularly used to destroy black neighborhoods, they were also used to keep black and white neighborhoods apart,” Kruse wrote. “Today, major roads and highways serve as stark dividing lines between black and white sections in cities like Buffalo, Hartford, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.”

His article was focused on Atlanta but, as above, it is peppered with other examples from other places. In Detroit, for example, a wall built to keep Black and White residents apart nearly a century ago is still standing.

Kruse’s article was part of the Times’s “1619 Project,” an effort to elevate examples of structural racism that led to a massive backlash on the right and seeded the current effort to demand a teaching of American history that avoids close examination of issues of race. The furor over critical race theory, an intellectual movement whose name has been appropriated to refer to a broad, nebulous pool of educational discussion of issues of race, can be traced back to the political fight over the “1619 Project” that former president Donald Trump amplified in 2020. Trump’s goal was obvious: use the reexamination of American history as a way to stoke the insecurities of White voters who saw questions about historical racism as somehow destabilizing. Now, the fight involves states passing laws preventing educators from teaching critical race theory, and it involves parents attending school board meetings to express anger about what they believe their kids are being taught.

The renewed Buttigieg kerfuffle should serve as a counterweight to that effort. It is not only obviously true that American governmental bodies used infrastructure spending as a way to bolster both directly and indirectly racist policies, but it is an equally obvious truth that such systemic decisions have often been ignored in the teaching of the country’s history. The “1619 Project” was meant to help elevate some of that history and, in doing so, it elevated the debate over its teaching.

That proved irresistible to the political right. But as the example of Moses and Buttigieg demonstrates, opponents of teaching this history keep showing why it needs to be.