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California reparations task force discusses infrastructure's discriminatory history

Andrew Nixon

The task force heard from experts about how the building of state highways and investment in certain forms of transportation have disproportionately hurt African Americans in California.

At this week’s state reparations task force meeting, committee members discussed how the unequal building of infrastructure has displaced and economically disadvantaged African Americans living in California.

“The benefits and burdens of our transportation system — from highways to roads, bridges, sidewalks — have been planned, developed, sustained, to pull resources from Black communities,” Deborah Archer, president of the American Civil Liberties Union said. “Resources that were subsequently redeployed and invested to the benefit of predominantly white communities and their residents.”

The task force was convened earlier this year, after the passage of Assembly Bill 3121. The group of nine members has been appointed to lay out the guidelines for how the state can begin to make reparations to African Americans for harm caused by things like housing discrimination, redlining and infrastructure building.

Bruce Appleyard, a city planner and professor at San Diego State University, said that certain highways have divided Black communities. He used Oakland as an example of a city where a highway was built directly down the center of a historically Black neighborhood, and how that’s caused disinvestment and fragmentation.

“Major harm came in the way of highway development through Black neighborhoods that forcefully carved and ripped up whole communities and otherwise walling them off from adjacent communities,” Appleyard said.

He said that unequal government investment in public transportation has also added to the disinvestment of Black communities.

“Oftentimes, transit funding is being applied to the development of expensive rail projects that serve white suburbs and the expense of bus services that serve communities of color,” Appleyard said.

Archer added that access to functioning infrastructure can often lead to deepening inequities in other ways.

“Safe, accessible, reliable infrastructure is disproportionately built in white neighborhoods, connecting those residents to opportunities while Black communities continue to suffer from underdevelopment,” Archer said.

The task force also discussed the possibility of asking the state to allocate some of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan funds towards fixing some of these unequal investments. Part of the administration’s plan has specifically noted that racial equity should be centered in the use of the funds.

Earlier this year, California received about $26 billion in recovery funds, with an additional $16 billion to go directly towards cities and counties with populations over 50,000 people.

Homelessness and gentrification as other effects of discriminatory building

Task force members also heard from experts about the racial breakdown and disproportionate impact of homelessness and gentrification on Black neighborhoods across the state.

African Americans are much more likely to be homeless than other races in California. In Sacramento in particular, experts who testified said the homeless population was 34% African American, despite making up just 13% of the county’s overall population.

“Black people being overrepresented in the unhoused population is neither incidental nor accidental,” Brandon Green

Experts also added that Black people were more likely to be renters and to pay a greater portion of their income towards rent. Many are also more likely to be pushed to the outer edges of cities, which require longer, more expensive commutes to get to their jobs.

“This is clearly motivated by primarily the sub-prime crisis in which Black folks were foreclosed and displaced en masse,” said Darrell Owens, a data policy analyst at California YIMBY, a housing advocacy organization. “This is something that needs reparations to combat, because it’s essentially eliminated a large swath of Black wealth and caused a mass exodus out of the state or to more suburban areas.”

Task force members say they hope to recommend ways that the state can help California African Americans recoup some of these losses. A formal report from its members will be sent to the state by June of next year.

“At the root of this whole question of whether or not we should and must receive reparations is the sin and the evil that Black folks have been devalued by this national government, the whole Atlantic slave trade and wherever we have gone,” Amos Brown, vice chair of the task force, said. “What we are asking for is no more than for our humanity to be valued.”

The task force will meet again for further discussion in January.

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