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The Legacy of Urban Disinvestment: Racial Inequity in the City



So far, our series on the legacy of urban disinvestment has explored its historical roots in late 20th century urban policy and our modern critical infrastructure maintenance crisis. Racism and persistent racial inequity are discussed in each of these stories because America’s systemic anti-Black racism is deeply intertwined with the history and legacy of urban disinvestment. White backlash to school integration and the civil rights movement helped drive the urban white flight of the late 20th century. Later, racist stereotypes about Black urban communities would help fuel Reagan and Clinton era divestments in urban development and social safety net programs. Racism helped fuel the urban disinvestment crisis, and the fallout of these policies continues to harm Black communities today. 


Since the Great Migration, Black Americans have made up a large proportion of urban residents in the United States. Some of America’s most iconic cities are majority Black and are led by Black mayors and city leaders. Atlanta, Georgia has been called America’s “Black Mecca” since the 1970s. Detroit, Memphis, Baltimore, New Orleans, and many other major cities are majority Black. Overall, about forty percent of Black American adults live in urban communities, and another forty percent live in nearby suburbs. 


Many cities that are majority white still have strong Black communities and majority Black neighborhoods--in part because of America’s long history of residential segregation. These Black neighborhoods have their own rich histories and cultures, and residents have deep, multigenerational connections to the community. About 52% of Black adults say that where they live is extremely or very important to their identity. Only about forty percent of white Americans surveyed said the same. 


For decades, residents of these majority Black cities and urban neighborhoods have suffered the consequences of urban disinvestment. As a result, Black residents are overrepresented in neighborhoods with high poverty, underperforming schools, and poor quality public services like parks and transit. These racial disparities cannot be explained by income inequality alone. A middle-income Black family is more likely to live in a poorly resourced neighborhood with a high poverty rate than a low-income white family


These persistent problems are the result of systemic inequity in the distribution of public funds and public goods. Black communities are less likely to receive beneficial public investments than their white counterparts and are more likely to be chosen for unhealthy infrastructure projects such as landfills, hazardous waste sites, and highways. Black communities have been forced to absorb the negative externalities that come with these projects--from water pollution and poor air quality to lower property values and higher incidences of asthma and chronic disease.


Today, the federal government is taking steps  to address and ameliorate this legacy of inequitable investment. The Biden Administration has launched Justice 40, a federal initiative designed to ensure federal money is more equally and inclusively distributed. Justice 40 commits many of the federal government’s largest programs to investing 40 percent of their overall benefits in disadvantaged communities that have been underserved by the government and overburdened by pollution. 


Justice 40 covers a range of federal programs addressing issues such as climate change, clean energy, affordable housing, legacy pollution cleanup, clean water infrastructure, and more. Justice 40 is explicitly and intentionally designed to help repair the United States’ legacy of racist and unequal public investment. 


Awareness of systemic racism in American cities is growing, and programs like Justice 40 are a good first step towards addressing and repairing these harms. But these issues are many decades old, and it will take more than one program or commitment to solve this multifaceted problem. Leaders at all levels of government, from community and city leaders to federal agencies, must mobilize to address the harm done to America’s Black urban communities over the past decades.


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