Ron DeSantis ignores racist history of urban planning

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Florida is among many states in which Black neighborhoods have been destroyed by highway construction.

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, attacking the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, told reporters on Tuesday that he didn't see how highways and other roads could be racially discriminatory. If DeSantis read up on the history of his state and others, he'd encounter many examples of highway construction being used to destroy Black and Latino communities.

The infrastructure legislation, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden, contains provisions designed to specifically address historical assaults and inequities contained in earlier infrastructure projects.

"They're saying that highways are racially discriminatory, I don't know how a road can be that," said DeSantis. "This is the woke-ification of federal policy when you see this stuff."

"Woke" has become the right's catchall term for efforts to undo previously discriminatory policies along with a host of other ideas conservatives don't like.

In one example from DeSantis' own state, a Black business district that thrived in a Tampa neighborhood nicknamed "the Scrub" between the 1910s and the 1960s was destroyed by the planning and construction of interstate highway I-275.

A March 2021 report from the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Tampa region details the extent of the operation and the racist policies that determined where the new highway would be placed.

Referring to the Scrub, plans from 1941 mentioned the need to "do much towards clearing up a blighted slum north of Cass Street on both sides of Central."

A zoning plan from the following year stated, "There are several other, smaller areas, occupied now by colored people that should be eliminated and moved to other areas." A plan in 1945 referred to the center of Tampa's Black community as a "a cancerous infection ripe for a major operation to transform it into something economically sound and worthwhile from a civic standpoint." The report also called the region "an unnecessary and excess burden of expense to the taxpayers."

Rodney Kite-Powell, director of the Tampa Bay History Center's Touchton Map Library, told Tampa Bay station Fox 13 in November:

It's hard to look at a map of Tampa before the interstate and knowing what was there — Central Avenue which was a really thriving African American business district dating from the 1910s going all the way up to the 1960s and seeing the Scrub and even an affluent neighborhood along the Mar Avenue, and then knowing the interchange of I-4 and 275 is literally on top of that. It's hard to see that and not presume that race played a role in the decision for those roads to go where they went.

Kite-Powell said the developments split neighborhoods in two in an "absolutely devastating" manner.

Highway placement resulting from racially discriminatory policy also affected Overtown, just outside of Miami, displacing Black residents in the 1960s.

All across the United States, racist policies played a role in the placement of highways that negatively affected Black and Latino communities.

Fact-checking Republican reactions to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's acknowledgment of racism in highway planning in April 2021, PolitiFact noted, "In city after city, highways of the Interstate era and before have prompted the demolition or fragmentation of Black neighborhoods — due, historians say, to a combination of racism, lower acquisition costs for real estate, and weaker political muscle to oppose the projects."

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide funding to state and local governments to demolish highways and rebuild streets and other infrastructure such as parks that were destroyed by previous construction.

The law also funds the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, which allocates resources to study the impact of removing or retrofitting highways that bisected Black communities.

DeSantis opposed the infrastructure bill, deriding it as "pork barrel spending." Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott voted against it, as did Florida Republicans in the House.

Despite Republican opposition, Florida will receive over $19 billion in infrastructure funds under the act, including $13.1 billion for road construction projects.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.