There's a reason 'highways do not go in straight lines.' How racism is built into American infrastructure.

There's a reason 'highways do not go in straight lines.' How racism is built into American infrastructure.
Police Chief George H. Guy poses beside the "White waiting room" sign posted outside the Greyhound bus terminal in McComb, Mi., on Nov. 2, 1961. The sign was erected on city property by McComb Police on Oct. 31, one day before the ICC ruling went into effect, which stated that segregation in bus terminals would end.AP Photo
  • Conservatives mocked Pete Buttigieg for saying racism is "built into" America's highways.
  • Experts say highways and infrastructure were built at the expense of BIPOC neighborhoods by design.
  • Those neighborhoods still suffer the economic and health consequences today.

Ora Lee Patterson grew up in the Rondo, a St. Paul, Minnesota, neighborhood where the city's Black community were based. It was akin to Harlem, with vibrant social life and thriving small businesses.

But then, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 allowed the state to claim large swathes of homes and businesses using eminent domain.

The state razed the neighborhood's main street to make way for Interstate 94, a 1,500-mile-long highway connecting the Great Lakes region to the west.

Patterson's home was seized, and she and her family were forced out of the Rondo along with other Black residents. Some homes were bulldozed, while others were moved and resold. The once-prosperous community withered.

Sadly, the Rondo was just one of many majority-Black neighborhoods across the US that was carved in two in the name of urban renewal in the mid-20th century. Highway construction destroyed vibrant neighborhoods across the country, including the Overtown in Miami, West Baltimore, Milwaukee's North Side, and many, many more.


Highways constructed throughout Black and low-income neighborhoods suffocated once-thriving communities, putting residents through the trauma of losing their homes and communities. It's what Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg spoke to when he told the Grio in an interview in early April, "there is racism physically built into some of our highways."

Conservatives were quick to mock Sec. Buttigieg for his comments. History, however, agrees with him - and so do urban planners. Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, told Insider there's a reason "highways do not go in straight lines."

"Highways have destroyed so many viable business corridors in people of color communities," he said. "If you look at how highways were built, they avoided affluent white neighborhoods and went through poor neighborhoods and people of color neighborhoods."

Bullard, who is often considered the "father" of the environmental justice movement, encourages anyone mocking Buttigieg's quote "to go and read."

He now serves on the White House's advisory council for environmental justice, where he's helping shape President Joe Biden's transportation and environmental policy. He says it feels bittersweet for the White House to finally acknowledge that environmental justice is a problem after Bullard's 40 years of work on the subject.


"These are exciting times," Bullard told Insider. "But we can't wait another 40 years because we don't have another 40 years. We have to approach these issues with the urgency that's required, because all communities should have the right to live and prosper."

Low-income Black communities often fell victim to redlining

Bullard says the racism built into American infrastructure doesn't stop at highways.

There's a reason 'highways do not go in straight lines.' How racism is built into American infrastructure.
Carlos Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Many issues can be traced back to the practice known as "redlining" in the mid-20th century, when the US government assigned neighborhoods different levels of investment risk based on residents' race and income. Federal regulators would only back mortgages and subsidize housing in neighborhoods designated low-risk - usually affluent white neighborhoods.

Low-income, Black, and immigrant neighborhoods were usually designated high-risk, often explicitly for racial reasons. Mapping Inequality's interactive redlining map reveals common terms federal regulators used to justify blacklisting certain neighborhoods from government funding opportunities: "colored people," "negroes," "foreigners," "infiltration of lower-grade population."

Redlining was a financial death sentence for people of color, especially Black Americans. It prevented them from receiving government-backed mortgages and outside investments. That led to lower property values, fewer homeowners, and less representation for residents in local government which meant infrastructure was neglected. They also often became "sacrifice zones" - designated sites for polluting industrial buildings or dumping sites for refuse or toxic waste.


White urban planners and government officials often saw redlined neighborhoods as the path of least resistance for ambitious infrastructure projects, with little thought to their impact. Building highways and public structures through redlined neighborhoods displaced homeowners and decimated local businesses.

"If housing is demolished for an expressway or government buildings, businesses don't have a clientele anymore and churches lose congregates," Mary Pattillo, Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University, told Insider.

Low-income white communities also suffered the effects of redlining, but residents were often able to move to nearby suburbs. Meanwhile, Pattillo said, displaced Black families were often forced into other crowded urban neighborhoods or underfunded public housing.

"Racial inequity is a defining feature of American culture"

Alisha Volante, a former history researcher at the University of Minnesota, compiled the stories of former residents of the Rondo and released them in a 2015 report, The Rondo Neighborhood & African American History in St. Paul, MN: 1900s to Current.

The Twin Cities Black community never fully bounced back after the destruction of Rondo. But Volante is hopeful current conversations around racial justice will finally force Minnesota - and the rest of the country - to confront its checkered racist past.


"Right now, it's becoming less and less fashionable to be overtly racist. And I think that's a start," Volante said.

Across the country, decades of racist infrastructure policies have had lasting consequences that are increasingly relevant today, especially in communities grappling with public health and climate disparities.

As the planet heats up, formerly redlined neighborhoods are on average 4.5 degrees hotter than typically white, affluent, greenlined neighborhoods. Fewer trees, the heat, and increased air pollution contribute to heart disease, pulmonary issues, and respiratory issues. Many communities are still home to toxic "brownfields," abandoned former industrial sites that continue to pollute a neighborhood's water and air.

Cate Mingoya grew up in a yellowlined neighborhood that had a single tree and was situated near a major boulevard, The air pollution and extreme heat in her neighborhood worsened her asthma, causing "substantial stress" for her low-income family.

"Each time I had to go to the hospital uninsured for an asthma attack, medical bills piled up," Mingoya, who serves as the director of capacity building at Groundwork USA, told Insider.


Now, Mingoya works to empower residents of neighborhoods like the one she grew up in to advocate for a healthy environment for their communities. Mingoya agrees with Sec. Buttigieg: racism is built into our roads. And though the people who designed the last century's racist infrastructure are long gone, that infrastructure still exists today, Mingoya said.

The government finally has an opportunity to update the country's transportation infrastructure to serve all communities, Mingoya said. To do that, it needs to address historical racial inequities.

"People get really touchy when we talk about race because it's personal. How can it not be? Racial inequity is a defining feature of American culture," she said.