Violet Lingenfelter

The Color of Law & Public Transit

January 13, 2019

Note : I do not speak for any organizations. All opinions shared are my own.

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The first book I read in 2019 was The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. In his work, Rothstein argues that segregation is the direct product of explicit government policies. Rothstein shows how the government promoted discriminatory practices at the federal, state, and local levels, in cities from Boston to San Francisco. Long-listed for the Nation Book Award, and one of Publishers Weekly's 10 best books of 2017, the Color of Law is a must-read if you are interested in structural racism in U.S. housing policy.

While his focus is primarily on housing policy, Rothstein touches on how the defunding of public transportation disproportionately affects African Americans. Highway subsidies often came at the expense of budgets for public transit, which serve inner city communities and households without cars. Highways were also often routed directly through majority black neighborhoods as a method of systematically erasing communities of color or as a way of separating them from white neighborhoods.

"It wasn't only the large scale federal programs of public housing and finance that created de jure segregation... Hundreds if not thousands of smaller acts of government contributed... includ[ing] routing interstate highways to create racial boundaries or to shift the residential placement of African American families."

— Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law

"Urban renewal" highway projects were often understood as a way to eliminate black communities, and funding was abundant. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of a 41,000 interstate highway network, and the federal government would pay for 90% of it via an increased gas tax. Alfred Johnson, the executive director of the American Association of State Highway Officials who lobbied the congressional committee that wrote the Highway Act, was quoted saying "some city officials expressed the view in the mid 1950s that the urban Interstates would give them a good opportunity to get rid of the local 'n*ggertown'."

"The [Federal Housing Authority] favored mortgages in areas where boulevards or highways served to separate African American families from whites, stating that '[n]atural or artificially established barriers will prove effective in protecting a neighborhood and the locations within it from adverse influences...includ[ing] prevention of the infiltration of...lower class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups.'"

— Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law

The creation of the interstate system had a direct effect on housing. Highways, serving as barriers between whites and blacks, made getting FHA backed mortgages more viable. Often highways were used as a method of creating segregated neighborhoods in areas where racial zoning was overturned. It is disturbing how common this practice was. Routing highways through black neighborhoods happened in Michigan, New Jersey, Florida, and in many other states. Urban renewal projects nearly fundamentally altered the landscape of Boston, as well.

The Southwest Expressway: People before Highways

Graffiti reading 'Stop I-95: People Before Highways'

Community organization succeeded in putting people before highways.
Source: Jamaica Plain Historical Society

The Southwest Expressway was a proposed highway segment that would eventually connect the southwestern suburbs and Route 128 to downtown Boston, by cutting through the southwestern neighborhoods of the city. The route would be part of I-95, the East Coast’s main interstate that goes from Florida to Maine, and therefore the federal government would pay for 90% of the proposed $24 million cost. The Southwest Expressway was originally planned to be completed in 1969.

The project was met with grassroots resistance. Anti-highway protests erupted in the communities that would have been affected by the highway, and similar protests took place in Cambridge, where another highway project threatened residential neighborhoods. Community organizing eventually caused political leaders to halt the project.

Crowd of protesters holding banner reading 'People before highways, Can you rollerskate on an expressway?'

Protests erupted in both Boston and Cambridge over the planned expansion of I-95.

The people of greater Boston managed to stop a major highway project and turn it into a community asset, a park and a rail line. The trench left from the incomplete highway was converted into a park, the Southwest Corridor. Political leadership was able to redirect funding that was originally for the highway to transit, allowing the MBTA to move the Orange Line from being an elevated rail going through the heart of Roxbury to the Southwest Corridor.

Moving the Orange Line to the Southwest Corridor was an elegant way of using this right of way, but it still left the communities once served by the Washington Elevated in the lurch. True rapid transit going into the heart of Roxbury has yet to be replaced. Currently the MBTA's bus rapid transit, the Silver Line, runs through the South End and Roxbury and has a terminal station at a historic Washington Elevated stop, Dudley Station. The Silver Line is not a true replacement for light rail or heavy rail, as it does not run on dedicated bus lanes and does not meet the requirements to be considered rapid transit.

Going Forward

“We have invested heavily in highways to connect commuters to their downtown offices but comparatively little in buses, subways, and light rail to put suburban jobs within reach of urban African Americans and to reduce their isolation from the broader community”

— Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law

As we move into 2019, we must hold with us the legacy of our past mistakes. When we consider what infrastructure we wish to invest in, we must consider the communities affected. Choosing to invest in public transit, coupled with investing in nearby affordable housing, can help right some of the wrongs we have made on this front. We can and must do better.

I plan to keep the ideas and facts presented in this book at the front of my mind during 2019. When considering urban planning and how our cities are structured, one must keep sight of the more insidious motives that past planners may have held. When I consider the place that I have spent the last two and a half years, Northeastern University, I must remember the Southwest Expressway and its legacy. The Southwest Corridor cuts through our campus. I must remember how easily the Southwest Corridor could have been a massive highway, and how glad I am that it isn't.

Cover of The Color of Law

The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Buy the book here (or even better, borrow it from the library)

About the Author


I am a student at Northeastern University studying environmental science. I like public tranportation and data visualization. See more about me

mbta transit orange line the color of law book review

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