When Discussing Racist Monuments, Don't Forget Urban Freeways

The racist history of planning in Los Angeles is particularly evident in the way Interstate freeways were planned in the region.

2 minute read

June 30, 2020, 12:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


110 Freeway

David Lee / Flickr

You've probably heard that the construction of the nation's interstate freeway system was racist both in intent and consequence, but Los Angeles' example provides evidence of just how tragically effective they were to those ends.

After recounting the many monuments that have been pulled down by protestors in recent weeks, in a "moment of truth telling," writes Mathew Fleischer, cities like Los Angeles need to reckon with another monument to racism: urban freeways.

"Most Angelenos don’t think about it as we spew carbon monoxide across the city on our way from Point A to Point B, but our toxic exhaust fumes feed into a pot of racism that’s been stewing for nearly a century," writes Fleischer. 

After recalling numerous planning decisions that took Black wealth and property around the Los Angeles region as it boomed in population in the first half of the 20th century, Fleischer mentions the coup de grace, the Interstate Highway Act of 1944, signed on June 29, 1956

"When the 1944 Federal-Aid Highway Act allocated funds for 1,938 miles of freeways in California, planners used the opportunity, with full federal support, to obliterate as much as possible the casual mingling of the races."

Fleischer tells a lot more of the history of racial segregation and disempowerment as manifest by the freeways in Los Angeles, referencing two books along the way for potential additional reading: If You Build It, They Will Move, by Gilbert Estrada, and The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein.

Eventually, Felischer ties the history of freeways in Los Angeles back to the contemporary moment of truth telling. 

"Remedying the enduring effects of white supremacy will be far more challenging — in progressive Los Angeles as much as in Alabama or Mississippi. And it will be impossible if we aren’t honest about the history that made things the way they are —and the massive undertaking it will require to remedy them."

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