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The Cementing of Racial Inequality in the Name of Urban Renewal and Infrastructure

During the Great Migration, Black Americans in the south fled to northern cities and other urban areas to escape the landless status conferred by the sharecropping system, white mob violence, and the region’s harshly unjust Jim Crow laws.1 Newly relocated, these Black communities began to develop thriving and vibrant arts and business districts and make strides in passing anti-discrimination legislation.2,3,4 Nonetheless, white city officials demolished these neighborhoods with impunity and without regard for the collective memory and relationships of the Black citizens of those neighborhoods. This sundering of once flourishing Black communities is where the legacy of urban renewal begins, a legacy in which the physical environment of cities was intentionally transformed to further oppress and exclude Black Americans from opportunities for upward mobility. 

Postwar urban renewal policies undergirded the obliteration of these advancements in the Black communities.5 In all, city officials razed 404,000 housing units and replaced only 41,580, less than an eleven percent replacement.6 Because of discriminatory practices by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) at the time—the agency responsible for providing affordable mortgages to new homeowners—Black Americans were forced to remain in increasingly blighted areas, frequently having to double up with families in cramped units.7 The overcrowding and displacement were further abetted by federal policies like the Housing Acts of 1954 and 1959, which dramatically curtailed the production of public housing units.8 

The disproportionate effect of urban renewal felt by Black people cannot be overstated. During the 1960s, they occupied 2/3rds of all slum units, and many Black Americans became homeless due to projects undertaken to restore economic viability to certain areas. In 1961—while only making up 10% of the population—Black Americans were 66% of the total residents impacted by processes of land redevelopment.6 And of those most affected, neither compensation nor suitable replacement housing was ever provided.9 

Perhaps nowhere is the intentional dislocation of Black communities via infrastructure projects more evident than in constructing the interstate system. In 1956, under the Eisenhower administration, the US Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act, a $26B public works project that sought to construct a 41,000-mi. coast-to-coast network of highways.10 With property in urban areas having already been condemned by city officials owing to degrading conditions and absentee landlords, the government was able to begin eminent domain procedures and either demolish Black neighborhoods entirely or use the new infrastructure to enforce existing redlined boundaries as defined by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation maps.7,10 Indeed, many urban planners and stakeholders saw an opportunity in redevelopment projects to cement racial inequality. The assumption—rightly borne out—was that the new infrastructure would lock in the geography of segregation and present a tremendous physical obstacle to any future integration efforts.10,11 One such individual, Robert Moses, one of the earliest adopters of urban renewal initiatives, ordered his engineers to lower the clearance of bridges, preventing buses (presumably filled with poor Black people) from accessing the state beaches.10 This weaponized infrastructure was patterned across the country, and according to estimates by the Department of Transportation, the nation’s interstate project displaced 475,000 households and more than a million people.10  An overwhelming majority of those displaced were Black.10 

In Miami, Interstate-95 tore through the center of Overtown, an economic center for the city’s Black population. In Pittsburgh, Hill District—a Black community—was leveled to construct Interstate 579.10 The construction displaced thousands of Black residents while cutting many off from the city’s downtown area.10 In sum, the politics of the interstate system resulted in connecting white people living in suburbia with economic opportunities in the city. It is a clear example of how public works systems that are meant to serve a citizenry end up facilitating white opportunity at the direct expense of Black people’s isolation and their ongoing economic deprivation. 

Into the millennium, the legacy of malign neglect and exclusion continued as the Category 3 hurricane known as Hurricane Katrina struck the parish of Plaquemines in Louisiana, 45 miles southeast of New Orleans, on August 27, 2005.12 During the hurricane, the rain fell with such intensity and velocity that it overwhelmed the structural integrity of the levees buttressing Lake Ponchartrain.12 As a result, the city of New Orleans was flooded. Over one million Americans—predominantly Black—had to be evacuated.12 Ten years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers formally announced the specific flaws that led to the levee failure. These included improper sea wall height and the mechanical failure of the flood gates.12 These issues were in addition to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) not listing parts of the New Orleans area as officially recognized flood zones. 12 This additional failure from FEMA disincentivized homeowners from pursuing flood insurance since they were unaware they were living in a flood zone.12 

Overall, we can observe the persistence and lethalness of this legacy of exclusion and malign neglect in the lead-rich pipes of Flint, MI,13,14 as well as in Lowndes County, Alabama, where overwhelmingly poor, Black residents who lack access to the city-run sewage system cannot afford adequate septic systems15 and must run their untreated wastewater from their homes directly into their yards. In Flint, MI, in 2014, the city switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River, a water body that car factories, meatpacking plants, and paper mills have used as a waste disposal site for treated and untreated refuse.13 As a consequence, incidents of children (in Flint, MI) with elevated blood levels of lead have risen two to three-fold within that year, resulting in decreased academic performance.13,14 While Lowndes County, AL may be an extreme case regarding hookworm, it is estimated that 12 million Americans could be suffering from neglected tropical diseases in poor parts of the South and Midwest.15

For far too long, infrastructure has been weaponized against Black Americans instead of serving the needs for quality of life. As mentioned by Zolan, “President Biden’s Plan promised that roads, bridges, and railways will no longer be instruments of bias or racism. Communities that ended up divided along racial lines will be made whole.16 To that end, the Biden Administration must not only mandate the repair of infrastructure in existing Black neighborhoods but also implement such upgrades that improve and maintain water quality and minimize air and ground pollution. Within commercial infrastructure and development, the administration must mandate the following measures. 

  • The Biden-Harris Administration must issue an executive order to recognize the need for the inclusion of Black Americans in engineering and technology. This order must create the permanent formation of The Office of Inclusion of Black Americans in Energy, Engineering, and Technology. This office will do the following:

    •  Ensure Black American-led businesses have a fifteen percent stake in the natural resources, supply chains, production, manufacturing, and distribution of components and end-products in all industries that involve construction, engineering, design, and manufacturing.
    • Mandate fifteen percent appropriation from the Department of Energy for the startup capital towards six regional accelerators and eighteen associated incubators to be led by Black American scientists, engineers, researchers, Inventors, and business professionals. Requirements will include mentors for founding members and a minimum of ten years for commercialization in the energy, engineering, and technology industries.

    • Mandate and ensure that six percent of Department of Defense funding goes towards the commercialization of solar power (photovoltaic and concentrated solar power), wind power, geothermal energy, intermittent cycling, energy storage, micro-grid technology, and smart grid technologies by Black American-led companies on behalf of the energy needs of Black communities.

    • Ensure that fifteen percent appropriation of funding from Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy is directed towards the research and development conducted by Black engineers, scientists, and researchers in the energy field specifically for Black American communities’ energy needs.

    • Conduct a mandatory annual audit of all US corporations in the energy, engineering, and IT industry to ensure fifteen percent employment of Black Americans at all employment levels, including entry-level, intermediate, and experienced professions in engineering, IT, and management.

    • Mandate a fifteen percent excise tax on shareholder preferred and common stock of all companies that generate energy and power from renewable sources to be paid to Black Americans.

  • The Biden-Harris Administration must create the office of the Black American Infrastructure Association to implement and manage the Black American Infrastructure Initiative and Black American Infrastructure Maintenance Program. The two initiatives combined will be a multi-trillion dollar* initiative to restore and maintain select urban areas according to the Urban Redevelopment Matrix**. Under both initiatives, the following provisions apply:

    • The restoration of select urban areas according to the Urban Redevelopment Matrix** should include interstate section removal, lane reduction, light rail implementation, and green urban infrastructure.

    • There should be a ban on tax incremental financing (TIF), tax abatements, and opportunity zones for developers in districts as outlined in the Urban Redevelopment Matrix. Such municipalities and stakeholders, through these finance vehicles, have 1) discriminately awarded less funding towards majority Black populated wards and districts, 2) fallen into fiscal stress and instability, and 3) demonstrated a disconnect between the communities’ needs versus investor interests (opportunity zones).

    • There should be a 9% appropriation towards the high-speed rail, electric and hybrid vehicles, electric stations, and hydrogen production from concentrated solar power (CSP) from the Department of Defense due to 1) the disparate amount of pollution inflicted on Black Americans, and 2) the connection between energy independence and national security.  The initiative should focus on connecting rail between major urban cities (interstate and intrastate), Black urban centers, and their respective urban connecting towns (light rail to highspeed rail).


  • All current and future infrastructure legislation, bills, and funding through the US Congress must have the following provisions and mandates:

    • Fifteen percent of all federal construction contracts should go to Black American-led construction firms and companies. The percentage of contract funding going to Black American-led construction firms for the restoration of urban centers as defined by the Urban Redevelopment Matrix** should equal the portion of the population that Black Americans represent within the urban areas to be restored.


    • The administration of all construction contracts going to Black American-led construction firms should have added provisions against the taking of bids, late notification of construction complaints or issues, and other discriminatory behaviors and acts that impede the performance of Black construction firms.
  • Urban planners and engineering contracting firms must implement green urban infrastructure and high-performance components for energy efficiency and noise reduction to combat the heat island effect and improve the ecological balance of heavily Black populated urban areas. HVAC systems and other heating, cooling, and ventilation technologies should meet the “Initiative for Better Energy, Emissions, and Equity Standards.”

  • Significant data shows that areas that have been redlined have had disparate flooding compared to non-redlined areas. Therefore, many strategies must address this disparate flooding, including improved flood risk assessment, relocation assistance for areas with a high probability of flooding, and drainage using conventional and green urban infrastructure methods.

    • There should be a comprehensive flood risk assessment for the United States that includes topography and geographical elements with flood modeling.

    • For formerly redlined areas where the probability of flooding exceeds a forty-to-fifty percent probability of flooding based on flood zones, there should be relocation assistance in the amount of the average US home value, the value of the home within the neighborhood, or the greater of the two for ADOS residents.

    • There should be improvements for the drainage of individual housing for Black Americans and Black neighborhoods in flood-prone redlined areas using conventional methods for homes in qualified areas outlined in the Urban Redevelopment Matrix.

    • For urban areas, there should be an investment in water harvesting of non-drinking water to reuse for trees and vegetation in urban areas (to minimize the heat island effect), urban farming, cooling towers, and possibly sewer mining.

  • There should be an enforcement of mixed development based on “Smart Growth” urban planning to minimize the reduction in water quality due to surface runoff. The zoning for such mixed development should exclude waste incinerators, chemical processing plants, and other facilities that exceed emissions beyond residential zoning requirements and restrictions.

  • A prioritization of urban underground development that minimizes pollution and noise from roads, interstate, and other forms of surface transportation. Urban underground areas should be developed for light rail, high-speed rail, and tunnels for auto transport.

  • Funding for urban farming measures (in areas as defined in the Urban Redevelopment Matrix) that reduces food deserts and the carbon footprint from importing food through repurposing vacant lots. Such food harvesting should be based on the expected food consumption and nutritional requirements of those in the urban areas versus the expected crop yield.

  • The administration must coordinate with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to create a new Office of Black American Transportation (OBAMT). This office will provide regulatory oversight of federal funding appropriations necessary to meet the mobility needs of Black Americans. The structure of OBAMT will house programs that fund public roads, bridges, and corridors, as well as provide additional oversight for mass transit and rail projects, their funding, and the management of the appropriations from each Surface Transportation re-authorization law that is passed. In coordination with the  DOT, OBAMT will work with the Federal Rail Administration and the Federal Transit Administration to develop an integrated high-speed rail system that provides connectivity for intercity and interstate travel. High-speed rails, at a minimum, should reach speeds of 120 mph. Intercity travel will be developed using low-floor light rail cars and an integrated ticketing system to promote seamless travel.
  • Black communities will receive a special appropriation as a subsection of each Re-Authorized Surface Transportation bill dedicated towards OBAMT to create a program to specifically fund ongoing maintenance of road conditions in Black American communities. Within each appropriation, there will be an allotment of funding for each fiscal year towards the use of either concrete or asphalt and smart material sensors (to detect micro-fractures) to either habilitate, preserve, maintain, or increase the capacity of roads, streets, state-highways, or interstates using asphalt and concrete. All roads within Black communities must be mapped, visualized, scheduled, and programmed to be rehabilitated, reviewed, and approved by OBAMT.
  • The OBAMT will also oversee the development and implementation of a Black American targeted bridge program, develop an inventory, and map the conditions of all bridges in Black communities while monitoring the status of bridges for their useful life. OBAMT will also plan the development of new bridges and allot federal appropriations to fund the scheduled maintenance of bridges approaching the end of their useful life.
  • In collaboration with the OBAMT, DOT shall work to ensure that fifteen percent of the electric vehicle infrastructure contracts are targeted toward Black contractors to aid in the development of charging infrastructure.

  • The Biden-Harris Administration will establish the Black Americans Broadband and Telecommunications initiative under the Office of the Black American Infrastructure Association to close the digital divide by financially supporting educational programs at all age levels among Black Americans that provide digital literacy and services for setting up home internet and broadband access with an annual allotment of at least $25M for both urban and rural communities. The administration will also fund and oversee the disbursement of funds towards the construction, service, and maintenance of broadband in rural areas that consider the spatial distance of towns, the cost of towers, and other infrastructure in rural developments. Such measures should be backed annually by no less than $1B. There should also be a fifteen percent excise tax on the revenue of data centers to subsidize broadband access to Black American homes in inner cities and rural areas. Black-owned businesses in the sector should provide fifteen percent of all broadband installation and service.


  • The Biden-Harris administration will spearhead the Black American Water and Waste Management Initiative, wherein no less than an annual allocation of $10B for requisite upgrades in distressed water treatment centers. This initiative will aid Black towns in maintaining their charters and provide funding for revenue shortfalls and regular operation, maintenance, and future expansion based on expected needs. For rural developments where no centralized wastewater treatment center exists—and such a facility is cost-prohibitive—this initiative shall focus on installing individual septic systems that include a drain field configuration and groundwater. Such components should be chosen based on the home’s climate, soil condition, and elevation. An annual allocation of $10B should back this measure. Fifteen percent of all contractual work and maintenance for both central water treatment centers and individual septic tank systems should go towards Black-owned businesses. This initiative should also include lead removal from existing water pipes.  


  1. Tolnay, Stewart E. “The African American’ Great Migration’ and Beyond.” Annual Review of Sociology 29 (2003): 209–32.

  2. Shepherd, A., 2022. Black and White: Race, Culture, and Urban Renewal. Ph.D. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

  3. Campbell, M., 2018.  Understanding Urban Renewal from a Different Perspective. Ph.D. Clemson University.

  4. Gibson, Karen J. 2007. “BLEEDING ALBINA: A HISTORY OF COMMUNITY DISINVESTMENT, 1940-2000.” Transforming Anthropology 15 (1) (04): 3-25.

  5. Niemuth, N., 2014. Black Urban Renewal and the Development of Milwaukee’s African American Community: 1960-1980. Ph.D. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

  6. Johnson, Roberta Ann. “African Americans and Homelessness: Moving Through History.” Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 4 (2010): 583–605.

  7. Fullilove MT. Root shock: the consequences of African American dispossession. J Urban Health. 2001 Mar;78(1):72-80. doi: 10.1093/jurban/78.1.72. PMID: 11368205; PMCID: PMC3456198.

  8. Gotham, Kevin Fox. “A City without Slums: Urban Renewal, Public Housing, and Downtown Revitalization in Kansas City, Missouri.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 60, no. 1 (2001): 285–316.

  9. Baber, M. Yvette. “URBAN RENEWAL POLICY AND COMMUNITY CHANGE.” Practicing Anthropology 20, no. 1 (1998): 15–17.

  10. Archer, Deborah N. “White Men’s Roads through Black Men’s Homes”: Advancing Racial Equity through Highway Reconstruction.” Vanderbilt Law Review 73, no. 5 (10, 2020): 1259-1330.

  11. Karas, David Patrick. “Highway to Inequity: The Disparate Impact of the Interstate Highway System on Poor and Minority Communities in American Cities.” (2015).

  12. “Gulf of Mexico | Gulf, North America.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019,

  13. Denchak, Melissa. 2018. “Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know.” NRDC. November 8, 2018.

  14. “Flint Kids’ Math Achievement Decreased after Water Crisis, U.M. Study Says.” 2022. Mlive. May 20, 2022.

  15. Pilkington, Ed. 2017. “Hookworm, a Disease of Extreme Poverty, Is Thriving in the U.S. South. Why?” The Guardian, September 5, 2017, sec. U.S. news.

  16. Kanno-Youngs, Zolan, and Madeleine Ngo. 2021. “Racial Equity in Infrastructure, a U.S. Goal, Is Left to States.” The New York Times, November 16, 2021, sec. U.S.

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