Our Infrastructure Is Racist. Biden's Plan Seeks Justice | Opinion

President Joe Biden's long-awaited American Jobs Plan has finally arrived, clocking in at $2.3 trillion in spending over eight years. In today's dollars, this is almost 5 times the new funding provided in President Obama's 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). And yet, as many have been quick to point out, significantly more investment is still needed to match the scale of the intersecting crises facing our nation and to unleash the full potential of the American economy.

While its current scale may fall short, one key takeaway from President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan is that it contains many strong illustrations of equity-based planning, putting the needs of underserved and disadvantaged communities at the fore.

This is how all federal policy should be fashioned going forward.

As we look to bring our infrastructure up to speed with the 21st Century, equitably distributed investments are how we begin to remedy the wrongs of a structurally racist transportation and housing system, reconstruct a more just urban environment, and improve the health and economic wellbeing of those who have been systemically disadvantaged by our past and current investments and programs.

The following noteworthy components in Biden's plan show we can move the needle on equity-based urban planning:

One important equity-centric expenditure, at roughly $115 billion, is focused on cutting emissions and reducing congestion. How is that helpful to communities of color and low-income communities? It begins to address what is all too familiar in many U.S. states: Black neighborhoods are 79 percent more likely than white neighborhoods to be exposed to industrial pollution, often from oil and gas refineries and petrochemical plants. And Black and Hispanic communities also bear the disproportionate burden from air pollution generated by white Americans, leading to disproportionate rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.

By cutting emissions and reducing congestion, which this plan does, we begin to make neighborhoods healthier for all Americans and start chipping away at the disproportionate energy and pollution burdens faced by communities of color.

A second big equity boost, totaling over $160 billion, to improve and expand intercity rail and bus lines throughout America's urban areas is again a critical investment in helping connect communities of color and low-income communities to places of employment, shopping, public space, parks and more.

Given that workers of color are two to three times more likely not to have a vehicle at home, public transit is an essential service for getting to and from work. Yet at the same time, workers of color are over-represented in those experiencing longer commutes due to inequitable city planning. And for many low-to-moderate income Americans, which represent two-thirds of public transportation users, public transit is inaccessible, inadequate, unavailable, or unaffordable, due yet again to persistent inequities in transportation spending.

By investing in much needed and long overdue rail and bus line improvements and expansions, we simultaneously invest in these under-served communities, making commute times shorter, family time longer, and work time less exhausting.

Eisenhower Expressway
Eastbound traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago, Illinois on March 7, 2020. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

A third substantial component is the $213 billion focused on housing, which is a necessary and long overdue prioritization of low-income and disadvantaged communities that have long suffered housing inequity and injustice in America.

What are we talking about specifically? Communities of color in formerly redlined neighborhoods now experience higher rates of "chronic disease, shorter lifespans, and greater risk factors for COVID-19" due to poor housing quality. They are more likely to live in low-opportunity zones, more likely to be low-income renters, and are dramatically overrepresented among those experiencing homelessness—due, in part, to a history of discriminatory housing policy and planning.

By investing billions in housing rehabs, retrofits, upgrades and updates, as well as cleaner energy for these homes, we will save lives and dramatically improve health. This build out of affordable and public housing is also just the beginning of what will be necessary in repairing past wrongs in our history of housing injustice and discrimination and undoing America's legacy of systemically racist housing policy.

A fourth key equity component of the plan is the $20 billion that's focused on reconnecting communities that have been divided and disjointed by highway construction, a dynamic that's prevalent and pervasive in communities of color and low-income communities, while prioritizing racial equity in new construction. In many cities, highways represent the racial divide and modern-day structural racism, segregating and displacing communities of color and low-income communities and cutting them off from access to downtown centers. In fact, planning roads through Black communities was commonplace in American planning, known among critics as "white roads through black bedrooms."

By investing in this critical work to reconnect communities, we begin to deconstruct a structurally racist highway system. This investment represents an important first step.

But much more is needed, including sustained, long-term investment, to make our urban landscapes more equitable.

We could keep going. The $50 billion for infrastructure resilience, as another example, will be a serious boost for communities of color and low-income communities who are often the most impacted by climate disaster and live on the frontlines of rising sea levels and worsening storms. Other pieces of President Biden's American Jobs Plan are also important in addressing the longstanding disparities in our society, including monies for lessening pollution near ports, and a much discussed and sizable investment in electric vehicles, which will have a tangible benefit in emissions reductions in urban centers.

All of the above is exactly the direction we need to go in building a fairer, more equitable America. It's a good start. Now the work will fall on Congress to build upon this plan and create legislation that is truly transformative.

U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke (D-NY) is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and co-chair of the Smart Cities Caucus. Dr. Michael Shank is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University's Center for Global Affairs.

The views in this article are the writers' own.