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Excerpted From: Deborah N. Archer, Transportation Policy and the Underdevelopment of Black Communities, 30 Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law 253 (2021) (186 Footnotes) (Full Document)

DeborahNArcherHistorian Manning Marable posited that “[t]he most striking fact about American economic history and politics is the brutal and systemic underdevelopment of Black people.” According to this theory, Black people “have never been equal partners in the American Social Contract, because [our] system exists not to develop, but to underdevelop Black people.” To affect this underdevelopment, racism is embedded into the core of power, the economy, culture, and society. The result is that Black people have been intentionally sacrificed to feed America's growth and expansion. Public figures ranging from politicians to intellectuals routinely identify and “condemn” America for “systematically exclud[ing]” Black communities “from the material, cultural and political gains achieved by other ethnic minorities” towards the rights and power generally guaranteed to white people without question.

Blacks are unemployed, economically exploited and politically disfranchised because they are excluded or segregated because of caste or racial discrimination. But there is another point of view on this issue: Blacks occupy the lowest socioeconomic rung in the ladder of American upward mobility precisely because they have been “integrated” all too well into the system. America's “democratic” government and “free enterprise” system are structured deliberately and specifically to maximize Black oppression.

Ultimately, Manning argues, the oppression of Black America is the driving force behind the development of the United States--and the resulting underdevelopment of Black people.

Transportation policy has always been a driver of inequality. The nation's transportation system, like other American systems, has been deployed to maximize the oppression of Black America while accelerating the accumulation of political and economic power in white communities. Using Marable's theory of underdevelopment, this Essay explores the ways transportation policy and infrastructure development have fed inequality and helped make many Black communities inhospitable for health, success, and economic opportunity. The nation's transportation infrastructure was built at the expense of Black communities and has contributed to and sustained the underdevelopment of Black America, often making it difficult for Black people to take advantage of society's opportunities. The benefits and burdens of our transportation system--highways, roads, bridges, sidewalks, and public transit--have been planned, developed, and sustained to pull resources from Black communities that are subsequently deployed and invested to the benefit of predominantly white communities and their residents.

We continue to see the effects of underdevelopment. Black people are disproportionately at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, and have found little investment in Black communities, businesses, or education. For example, the lack of infrastructure investments in Black communities in New Orleans led to displacement, disastrous emergency evacuation responses, and death in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, Ferguson, Missouri, suffered a dramatic economic decline in the years before the killing of Michael Brown, which, paired with poorly trained police officers, created an “environment of hopelessness, injustice, and inequality.” In 2020, transportation policy contributed to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in Black communities. Numerous studies confirmed that low-income communities of color, that disproportionately faced lack of access to reliable transportation and the pollution of roads and highways running through their communities, were at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

To move forward, Marable urged a systemic analysis of “the historical foundations of underdevelopment, and articulate[d] a theory of social transformation which will overturn capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy.” More recently, scholars and activists have called for a Third Reconstruction to affect a fundamental change in how our country attacks systemic and structural racial inequality. This Essay draws from both the Third Reconstruction and Marable theories to argue that to break the link between transportation policy and the underdevelopment of Black communities, advocates must robustly deploy civil rights laws to challenge the dispossession of land, lack of opportunity and investment, and the accumulation of harms in Black communities. The Essay proceeds in three Parts. Part II briefly explains and explores Manning Marable's theory of underdevelopment. Part III applies Marable's theory to transportation policy in the United States, connecting his theory of underdevelopment to a history of transportation policies that destroyed, isolated, and segregated Black communities, leading to the underdevelopment of those communities and their residents. Part IV proposes a way forward. Despite the wide-ranging impact that transportation decisions have on civil rights and racial equity concerns, transportation policy has not been widely embraced as a pressing civil rights concern. Finally, Part V concludes. This Essay argues that moving forward, advocates must harness the power of civil rights laws to dismantle systems and structures of racial inequality and the discrimination at the intersection of race, class, and place. To do so, advocates must re-envision these laws as tools for community equity.

[. . .]

This Essay argues that utilizing civil rights laws is necessary to dismantle traditional power systems and discrimination at the intersection of race, class, and place in America. To ensure that the development of Black communities receives equal footing with that of white communities, we must invoke the deep, structural change that Marable espouses. We must address historically embedded and systemic racial inequality and re-envision civil rights law as a tool for community equity to break the chains of government-sponsored and government-sanctioned underdevelopment.

Jacob K. Javits Professor at New York University (2020-2021) and Professor of Clinical Law, New York University School of Law.

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