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You are reading the Excerpt of Highway Robbery by Robert D. Bullard (Editor), Glenn S. Johnson (Editor), and Angel O. Torres (Editor).

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Highway Robbery | Excerpt

from Chapter One, The Anatomy of Transportation Racism, Robert D. Bullard

In 1892, thirty-year-old black shoemaker Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in a “white” car of the East Louisiana Railroad.1 His refusal to sit in the “colored” car brought the weight of Louisiana’s Separate Car Act—a 1890 act that provided separate railway carriages for white and black passengers—upon him. While Plessy contended that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, he was found guilty. Plessy appealed the ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court and lost. Determined to fight for his civil rights, Plessy appealed to the US Supreme Court, but lost once again.2

In May 1896, the US Supreme Court decision upheld the Separate Car Act of Louisiana that called for segregated “white” and “colored” seating on railroad cars. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision ushered in the infamous doctrine of “separate but equal.” Reaching beyond the scope of transportation, the Plessy doctrine embraced many other areas of public life, such as rest rooms, theaters, and public schools, and provided legal basis for racial segregation in the United States. On behalf of a seven-person majority, US Supreme Court Justice Henry Brown wrote the following:

That [the Separate Car Act] does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery… is too clear for argument.… A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored race—a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color—has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races.…The object of the [Fourteenth Amendment] was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.3

Race Matters

Although the US has made tremendous strides in civil rights, race still matters in America.12 In his classic book Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison illustrated that white racism not only harms individuals, but it also renders black people and their communities invisible.13 By one definition, white racism is the “socially organized set of attitudes, ideas, and practices that deny African Americans and other people of color the dignity, opportunities, freedoms, and rewards that this nation offers white Americans.”14 Racism combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for whites while shifting costs to people of color.15 Many racist acts and practices are institutionalized informally—and in some cases become standard public policy. For decades, it was legal and common practice for transit agencies to operate separate and unequal systems for whites and blacks and for city, county, and state government officials to use tax dollars to provide transportation amenities for white communities while denying the same services to black communities.

American cities continue to be racially polarized. Residential apartheid is the dominant housing pattern for most African Americans—still the most segregated ethnic group in the country. Nowhere is this separate society contrast more apparent than in the nation’s central cities and large metropolitan areas. Urban America typifies the costly legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutionalized discrimination.16

America’s dirty secret, institutionalized racism is part of our national heritage.17 Racism is a potent tool for sorting people into their physical environment.18 St. Claire Drake and Horace R. Cayton, in their 1945 groundbreaking Black Metropolis, documented the role racism played in creating Chicago’s South Side ghetto.19 In 1965, psychologist Kenneth Clark proclaimed that racism created our nation’s “dark ghettos.”20 In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the Kerner Commission, reported that “white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto” and that “white institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”21 The black ghetto is kept contained and isolated from the larger white society through well-defined institutional practices, private actions, and government policies.22 Even when the laws change, some discriminatory practices remain.

Some contend that “racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society.”23 Permanent or not, racism continues to be a central factor in explaining the social inequality, political exploitation, social isolation, and the poor health of people of color in the United States. Furthermore, contemporary race relations in America can no longer be viewed in the black-white paradigm. Racism makes the daily life experiences of most African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and Asian and Pacific Islander Americans very different from that of most white Americans. Modern racism must be understood as an everyday lived experience.24

Not having reliable public transportation can mean the difference between gainful employment and a life of poverty in the ghettos and barrios. Since most do not have cars, transportation is even more crucial for the vulnerable population that is moving from welfare to work. Training, skills, and jobs are meaningless if millions of Americans can’t get to work. Of course, it would be ideal if job centers were closer to the homes of inner-city residents, but few urban core neighborhoods have experienced an economic revitalization that can rival the current jobs found in the suburbs. Transportation remains a major stumbling block for many to achieve self-sufficiency. It boils down to “no transportation, no job,” and, more often than not, public transportation does not connect urban residents to jobs.

Transportation policies did not emerge in a race- and class-neutral society. Transportation-planning outcomes often reflected the biases of their originators with the losers comprised largely of the poor, powerless, and people of color. Transportation is about more than just land use. Beyond mapping out the paths of freeways and highways, transportation policies determine the allocation of funds and benefits, the enforcement of environmental regulations, and the siting of facilities. Transportation planning affects residential and commercial patterns, and infrastructure development.25 White racism shapes transportation and transportation-related decisions, which have consequently created a national transportation infrastructure that denies many black Americans and other people of color the benefits, freedoms, opportunities, and rewards offered to white Americans. In the end, racist transportation policies can determine where people of color live, work, and play.26

Transportation planning has duplicated the discrimination used by other racist government institutions and private entities to maintain white privilege. The transportation options that are available to most Americans today were shaped largely by federal policies as well as individual and institutional discrimination. Transportation options are further restricted by both the geographic changes that have taken place in the nation’s metropolitan regions and historical job discrimination dictating limited incomes.27 Transportation decision-making is political. Building roads in the job-rich suburbs while at the same time blocking transit from entering these same suburbs are political decisions buttressed by race and class dynamics. In cities and metropolitan regions all across the country, inadequate or nonexistent suburban transit serves as invisible “Keep Out” signs directed against people of color and the poor.

Birth of a Movement

The environmental justice movement has its roots in the transport and illegal dumping of toxic waste along roadways in North Carolina. In 1978, over 30,000 gallons of oil laced with the highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) was illegally dumped along 210 miles of roadway in fourteen North Carolina counties—the largest PCB “spill” ever recorded in the United States. The contaminated oil was left on the roadways for four years.

In 1982, the State of North Carolina decided a disposal site was needed for 30,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with highly toxic PCBs. Warren County, a poor and mostly African American county, was selected for the dumpsite. Over 500 protesters, the majority of them African American, were arrested for protesting “Hunt’s Dump” (named for then governor James Hunt). This marked the first time Americans had been jailed protesting the siting of a waste facility. The protesters were unsuccessful in blocking the PCB landfill. Nevertheless, they brought national attention to siting inequities and galvanized African American church leaders, civil rights organizers, and grassroots activists around environmental justice issues.28

The demonstrations against the PCB landfill prompted Walter Fauntroy, District of Columbia delegate and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, to request a US General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation of hazardous waste facility siting in Region IV of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), comprised of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. African Americans made up about one-fifth of the population in EPA’s Region IV, and the 1983 GAO report discovered that three of the four offsite hazardous waste landfills in the region were located in predominately African American communities. Today, all of the offsite commercial hazardous waste landfills in the region are located in predominately African American communities.

The events in Warren County also prompted the United Church of Christ (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice to produce its landmark Toxic Wastes and Race study.29 The 1987 UCC commission study documented that three out of five African Americans lived in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites and that 60 percent of African Americans (fifteen million) lived in communities with one or more waste sites. The study found that three of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills were located in predominately African American or Latino communities and accounted for 40 percent of the nation’s total hazardous waste landfill capacity in 1987.

In 1990, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality chronicled environmental justice struggles of rural, urban, and suburban African American communities in the South. Meanwhile, Confronting Environmental Racism in 1993 and Just Transportation in 1997 continued to affirm that if a community happens to be poor, inner-city, or inhabited by people of color, chances are it will receive less environmental protection and fewer transportation amenities than an affluent, suburban, white community.30

In response to this initial activism and documentation, grassroots groups sprang up all over the country to combat these unequal, unjust, and illegal practices. Couched within social, economic, and environmental justice contexts, various child care and housing advocates, health providers, educators, environmentalists, members of organized labor, have in recent years reintroduced transportation equity into the larger political and civil rights agenda.

Global Environmental Justice

In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit advanced environmental justice beyond its antitoxics focus to embrace more global issues like public health, land rights, land use, community empowerment, sustainability, energy, transboundary waste trade, and transportation. The summit was held in Washington, DC, and attracted over 1,000 people from all fifty states, including Alaska and Hawaii. Summit delegates came from as far away as Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Marshall Islands, and several African nations. They adopted the Principles of Environmental Justice to take back to their respective communities and serve as a guide in grassroots organizing.

In October 2002, environmental justice leaders convened the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (Summit II) in Washington, DC. Over 1,400 individuals representing grassroots and community-based organizations, faith-based groups, organized labor, civil rights, youth, and academic institutions made their way from nearly every state to the nation’s capital to participate. The vast majority, over 75 percent, of Summit II attendees came from community-based organizations. The new faces, individuals who were not present at the first summit in 1991, outnumbered the veteran environmental justice leaders two to one.

In an effort to have substantive materials going in and coming out of Summit II, a nationwide call for resource policy papers was issued. Summit II commissioned two dozen policy papers on subjects ranging from childhood asthma, energy, transportation equity, TEA3 and environmental justice, to smart growth, “dirty” power plants, climate justice, brownfields redevelopment, occupational health and safety, and human rights. The policy papers helped guide the workshops and hands-on training sessions. Women’s strong presence in the movement was evidenced by their leading, moderating, or presenting in more than half of the eighty-six workshops.

Summit II brought three generations (elders, seasoned leaders, and youth activists) of the environmental justice movement together. Summit II delegates called for youth and students to be integrated into the leadership of the environmental justice movement. The challenges of building a multiethnic, multiracial, multi-issue, anti-racist movement was present at both summits. Language and cultural barriers still hinder communication across the various ethnic groups. Much work is still needed to build trust, mutual respect, and principled relationships across racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, and age lines. Nevertheless, the strength of the environmental justice movement is in the diversity of the organizations and their constituents working together for positive change.

Changes that occurred between the first and second summits showed that the environmental justice (EJ) movement had made tremendous strides in one decade. When the first summit was convened in 1991, there were no EJ networks, university-based environmental justice centers, or environmental justice legal clinics. Today, there are a dozen EJ networks, four EJ centers, and growing numbers of university-based legal clinics that have environmental justice as an emphasis. The University of Michigan offers both a masters and a doctoral degree in environmental justice—the only such program in the country.

The 1991 summit saw adoption of the Principles of Environmental Justice. At Summit II, there was general consensus among participants that environmental justice must be a top priority in the twenty-first century. Despite improvements in the way government carries out environmental protection, gaps persist. Community groups are faced with rollbacks and the steady chipping away at civil liberties, basic civil and human rights, and environmental protection. It is clear that environmental justice advocates have to continue making their voices heard.


Grassroots groups are challenging transportation racism, and demanding that local, metropolitan, state, and federal transportation agencies contribute to the development of just, healthy, and sustainable communities with benefits to all sectors. Adopting a “follow the dollars” approach to organizing, activist groups discover who is important and who is not and which communities count and which do not simply by following the transportation dollars. Local leaders are beginning to track the flow of transportation funds through the various sectors and jurisdictions in their region. Many of these self-trained community analysts are not pleased with what they are discovering. Too often, low-income and people of color voices are muted and the lion’s share of transportation dollars flow elsewhere—away from their communities.

Community leaders are demanding an end to racist transportation policies and practices that favor white suburbanites over people of color—policies that use tax dollars to subsidize suburban sprawl and spur the demise of urban inner-city neighborhoods. Even when middle-income people of color make the move to the suburbs, transportation dollars and investments do not follow them as in the case of middle-income whites. Racial and economic redlining—practices closely akin to those commonly directed at black inner-city neighborhoods—strangle these black suburbs.

Cities from coast to coast offer fertile ground for grassroots transportation equity organizing. Some grassroots groups have organized to block freeway construction, “dirty” diesel bus facilities, and light rail lines that disrupt and displace residents and businesses, while other groups are demanding energy-efficient and cleaner burning public transit vehicles, and a fair and equitable share of transportation investments, services, and benefits that accrue to transit-oriented development projects.

Grassroots leaders are working on strategies to eliminate discriminatory and exclusionary practices that limit low-income and people of color participation in transportation decision-making. People must be at the table to speak for themselves. However, it is not enough to have a place at the table; community leaders’ voices must be heard and their views respected—even when these views may conflict with the dominant viewpoint.

Transportation is a key ingredient in any organization’s plan to build economically viable, healthy, and sustainable communities. Many of the economic problems in urban areas involving lack of mobility could be eliminated if existing transportation laws and regulations were vigorously enforced in a nondiscriminatory way. The solution to institutional racism, whether in transportation, housing, land use, or any other areas, lies in the realm of equal protection of all individuals, groups, and communities. State DOTs and MPOs have a major responsibility to ensure that their programs, policies, and practices do not discriminate against or adversely and disproportionately impact people of color and the poor. Transportation equity is not an unfunded mandate. It is the law.

Some groups have taken legal action to accomplish their goals, while others have chosen different routes. Litigation is just one tool in an assorted arsenal of weapons available to citizens, groups, and communities working on social justice and transportation issues. But legal action is no substitute for having a well-organized, disciplined, and informed populace. Transportation racism is easy to practice but difficult to eliminate, and there is no cookie-cutter formula for dismantling discrimination and unjust policies and practices. Passionate, committed, broad-based grassroots organizing based on the principles of environmental justice and civil rights for all is the foundation of the transportation equity movement.


1. For an in-depth account of the Plessy v. Ferguson court case, see Brook Thomas, ed., Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin, 1997).

2. Keith Weldon Medley, “The Sad Story of How ‘Separate but Equal’ Was Born,” Smithsonian Magazine (February 1994): 106.

3. Justice Henry Billings Brown, “Majority Opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson,” in Desegregation and the Supreme Court, ed. Benjamin Munn Ziegler (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1958), 50–51 .

12. Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

13. Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).

14. Robert D. Bullard, Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1987).

15. Joe R. Feagin, White Racism: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 1995), 7.

16. See Robert D. Bullard, ed., Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (Boston: South End Press, 1993); Robert D. Bullard, “The Threat of Environmental Racism,” Natural Resources & Environment 7, no. 3 (Winter 1993): 23–26; Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai, eds., Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992); Regina Austin and Michael Schill, “Black, Brown, Poor and Poisoned: Minority Grassroots Environmentalism and the Quest for Eco-Justice,” The Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy 1 (1991): 69–82; Kelly C. Colquette and Elizabeth A. Henry Robertson, “Environmental Racism: The Causes, Consequences, and Commendations,” Tulane Environmental Law Journal 5 (1991): 153–207; Rachel D. Godsil, “Remedying Environmental Racism,” Michigan Law Review 90 (1991): 394–427.

17. Robert D. Bullard, J. Eugene Grigsby, and Charles Lee, eds., Residential Apartheid: The American Legacy (Los Angeles: UCLA Center for African Studies, 1994), 3.

18. Luke Cole and Sheila Foster, From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

19. St. Claire Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis (1945; repr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

20. Kenneth B. Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 11.

21. Kerner Commission, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder (New York: Viking Press, 1969).

22. Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

23. Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well (New York: Basic Books, 1993), ix.

24. Joe R. Feagin and Melvin P. Sikes, Living with Racism: The Black Middle Class Experience (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 15.

25. Bullard, Grigsby, and Lee, eds., Residential Apartheid.

26. See Joe R. Feagin and Clairece B. Feagin, Discrimination American Style: Institutional Racism and Sexism (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co., 1986); Robert D. Bullard and Joe R. Feagin, “Racism and the City,” in M. Gottdiener and Chris G. Pickvance, eds., Urban Life in Transition (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1991), 55–76.

27. Robert D. Bullard and Glenn S. Johnson, eds., Just Transportation: Dismantling Race and Class Barriers to Mobility (Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 1997).

28. Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000).

29. United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States (New York: United Church of Christ, 1987).

30. See Bullard, Dumping in Dixie; Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism; Bullard and Johnson, Just Transportation.

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