In the 70 years that have passed since the sprawling interstate highway system was built, which destroyed many Black and brown communities throughout the country and prompted decades of ignored protests, there has been little effort by the federal government to reverse the damage.

A massive new federal program could finally offer some relief.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan sets aside hundreds of billions of dollars that will target racial inequality in transportation, education, employment, housing, and healthcare. In short, the Biden administration plan reimagines the conversation about infrastructure in hopes of reversing racial disparities. 

Congressional Republicans currently oppose the plan, which would be paid for by increasing the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%. 

Some cities and states have already tried to erase the mistakes of the past while the current administration has set aside $20 billion for communities isolated or damaged in the past.

Another $20 billion in tax credits would help build 500,000 new homes in underserved communities.

The plan also calls for $25 billion to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other institutions that serve minorities. 

An additional $100 billion would target racial inequities in job training and hiring. Other elements of the plan aim to tackle the digital divide between families of color and their white counterparts – coming during a period where racial disparities were starkly unveiled as children were forced to attend class from home.

Perhaps the boldest part of the new plan is a $400 billion investment for elderly and disabled Americans. The hope is that it would acknowledge and reward what Biden described in a recent speech as the “unseen, underpaid and undervalued” caregivers, who are disproportionately women of color, according to a study by the Family Caregiver Alliance, a San Francisco-based national non-profit. 

How we got here

While each issue is an important part of the president’s plan, the country’s highway system is an example of how the search for national prosperity came at the expense of others.

The $25 billion project, then the largest public infrastructure project ever authorized, involved building 41,000 miles of federal highways, according to a U.S government historical account of the legislation. It was also sponsored by two U.S. Congressman, one from Tennessee and the other from Louisiana.

The federal government picked up 90% of the tab so city planners aggressively began to build – helping mostly white commuters travel from the suburbs into cities. Black churches and schools were torn down and homes were taken by eminent domain as entire communities were destroyed.

Economic visionaries essentially pushed a plan that has paradoxically allowed the country to flourish while also contributing to Black isolation and poverty.

Those who wanted to escape couldn’t due to racist redlining, the denial of important government and private services – including obtaining home loans and even being able to buy in more affluent neighborhoods.

In the South, the examples are plenty. The Claiborne Expressway was built in the 1960s, cutting through the heart of Black New Orleans. The construction of a highway in Dallas destroyed a Freedman town. Interstate 65 and 85 now loom over what remains of a Black neighborhood in north west Montgomery in Alabama.   

Black neighborhoods in Nashville, Miami and Charlotte all experienced similar fates.