Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

The Routes of American Apartheid

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

The Routes of American Apartheid

Article excerpt

America transportation policies, at least in the figurative sense, still relegate people of color to the back of the bus.

For more than a century, people of color have struggled to end transportation discrimination in the form of unequal treatment on buses and trains. This form of apartheid, which clearly violates constitutionally guaranteed civil rights, was decreed in 1896 by Plessy v. Ferguson, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld Louisiana's segregated "white" and "colored" seating on railroad cars. This decision ushered in the infamous doctrine of separate but equal." Plessy not only decreed apartheid in transportation facilities but also served as the legal basis for racial segregation in education until the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision overturned it in 1954.

The modern civil rights movement has its roots in transportation. [1] In 1953, over half a century after Plessy vs. Ferguson relegated blacks to the back of the bus, African Americans in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, staged the nation's first successful bus boycott. Two years later, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus to a white man. In so doing, Parks ignited the modern civil rights movement. By the early 1960s, young "freedom riders" risked death by riding Greyhound buses into the deep South. This was their way of fighting transportation apartheid and segregation in interstate travel.

Today, despite those heroic efforts, transportation remains a civil-rights and quality-of-life issue. All communities are still not created equal. Indeed, some communities accrue benefits from transportation development projects, while others bear a disproportionate burden in paying the costs. Generally, benefits are more widely dispersed among the many travelers who use new roads, while costs or burdens are more localized. Having a seven-lane freeway next door, for instance, is not a benefit to someone who does not own a car.

Lest anyone dismiss transportation as a tangential racial issue, consider that Americans spend more on transportation than any other household expense except housing. The average American household spends a fifth of its income--or about $6,000 a year--for each car it owns and operates. Americans also spend more than 2 billion hours a year in their cars. According to the latest figures published in the Federal Highway Administration's Highway Statistics, total vehicle miles traveled in the United States increased by 59 percent from 1980 to 1995. [2]

Federal tax dollars subsidized many of the roads, freeways, and public transit systems in our nation. Many of these transportation projects had the unintended consequences of dividing, isolating, and disrupting some communities while imposing inequitable economic, environmental, and health burdens on them.

Clinton Weighs in

On February 11, 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations." This executive order reinforces what has been law for three decades. Indeed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discriminatory practices in programs receiving federal funds.

Environmental requirements also reinforce a number of regulatory laws and statutes, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1970. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act states,

No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. [3]

The 1994 executive order also focuses on NEPA, a law that established policy goals for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the environment. …

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