Since the mid-20th century, urban highway construction has worked as a powerful tool to segregate American cities and demolish communities of color. These imposing roadways served as a physical barrier to reinforce racist policies like redlining. As a result, walls of concrete and veils of smog and pollution grew to separate Black and brown communities from white.
Although government-led segregation is usually discussed as history, in the communities divided by these roads, considerable public health impacts persist. Increased investment in urban highways threatens to inflict further harm. In Houston, the expansion would demolish the Clayton Homes and displace many more residents from the historic Black and Latino neighborhoods of Near Northside and Independence Heights — all despite decades of evidence that widening highways does little to relieve congestion.
Local advocacy groups have protested the project, including by helping affected residents file complaints against the TxDOT, highlighting the expansion’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Though this advocacy led the Biden administration to halt construction, invoking Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (which prohibits racial discrimination in any activity that receives federal funding), Texas relocated over 110 people anyway.
“Where adverse impacts can’t be avoided, our team is exploring an array of extraordinary mitigation strategies to help leave the impacted areas better than before and as whole as possible,” said a statement provided by a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation. “We know that many in the community are anxious to see this project advance.”
Rather than being a rare exception, projects like this one fit a longstanding pattern of how the United States chooses to force highways through communities with the least political power to resist. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that expansions of existing highways have displaced more than 200,000 people over the past three decades, predominantly in nonwhite neighborhoods. Today, in El Paso, Austin, Portland, Los Angeles and Shreveport, planned highway expansions threaten many more with the loss of their homes. In Houston, the Third Ward — the heart of the city’s Black community — remains blocked off on all sides by highways. The planned expansion would literally widen this divide.
The Department of Transportation has estimated that highway construction has displaced over a million people in the United States since the 1950s. Hundreds of thousands more were forced to move by urban renewal projects, with scant assistance provided to those relocated.
Editor's note: click through to the source to view the graphics that accompany this essay.