Buttigieg breaks down how White House can undo racism built into US infrastructure

EXCLUSIVE: Secretary Pete Buttigieg tells theGrio how Biden's soon-to-be signed infrastructure investment law will bring equity to Black and disadvantaged communities.

America’s confidence in President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris‘s job performance is dropping rapidly. According to a new national poll from USA TODAY/Suffolk University, President Biden’s approval rating stands at 38%. And the numbers are worse for Vice President Harris, who scored a 28% job approval.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks alongside Vice President Kamala Harris
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks alongside Vice President Kamala Harris during a press conference in the State Dining Room at the White House on November 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Another poll by CNN finds 58% of respondents feel that President Biden isn’t paying attention to the most important issues.

Despite those low numbers, the White House is hopeful that they have secured a win with the passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that will also address various Biden-Harris campaign promises of equity and equality.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg signaled on Monday during an appearance at the White House press briefing that many of the projects funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would boost the economy, create jobs and fix a lot of America’s crumbling and antiquated infrastructure.

TheGrio posed a question from the briefing room to Secretary Buttigieg about how the administration plans to implement its Justice40 initiative, which is intended to ensure that at least 40% of overall federal investment in climate and clean energy goes toward disadvantaged communities.

“The principle of Justice40 for me is that at least 40% of the green investments in this bill will go to benefit the communities that are overburdened or overburdened and uncertain. So part one of that is defining those investments that are eligible,” Secretary Pete Buttigieg told theGrio.

Pete Buttigieg
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks to the press during a briefing with White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Nov. 8, 2021. (Photo: TheGrio)

Buttigieg added that the White House is “looking at the business opportunities, the jobs are going to be created, the businesses that will have a chance to compete for the business opportunities it creates. That too, I think, is a very important element of equity here that’s in the spirit of justice 40.” 

Part of the physical infrastructure plan is to design some of the roadways, highways and beltways that were built before the mid-1960s with the intent to segregate communities. 

Buttigieg emphasized that he is still shocked by the surprise of many people that some of the nation’s roadways were built with racial intent. Buttigieg spoke with theGrio back in April about how racism is literally built into some of the United States’s infrastructure.

“If an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach, […] in New York was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices,” Buttigieg told theGrio.

In his remarks, Secretary Buttigieg appeared to be making a historical reference to efforts led by urban planners like Robert Moses who infamously designed low bridges connecting New York City to beaches to keep city buses from passing underneath — and by proxy shutting out Black and Brown communities who, due to socioeconomic class, overwhelmingly relied on public transportation.

Buttigieg also made a reference to Moses in theGrio’s earlier sit-down with him. “Well if you’re in Washington, I’m told that the history of that highway is one that was built at the expense of communities of color in the D.C. area. There are stories and I think Philadelphia and Pittsburgh [and] in New York … Robert Moses famously saw through the construction of a lot of highways,” Buttigieg said at the time.

Secretary Buttigieg explained to theGrio during Monday’s press briefing how the government could help undo the harm of today’s existing infrastructure in communities of color.

“It’s going to vary by community and we have to listen,” Secretary Buttigieg said. “Sometimes it really is the case that an overpass went in a certain way that is so harmful, that it’s got to come down and maybe be put underground.”

A construction sign is seen as workers build the “Signature Bridge,” replacing and improving a busy highway intersection at I-95 and I-395 on April 13, 2021 in Miami, Florida. U.S. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

There are, however, other thoughtful options to remedy this situation. 

“We don’t want to impose a one-size-fits-all answer here. But when we’re on the safeties, for example, looking at it, one, we saw the local vision for how they want to get past those divisions. And those local ideas are being taken very seriously as we try to meet the spirit of this law,” the secretary added.

And later in the briefing led by Deputy White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, the issue of voting rights was another topic that was addressed on Monday. President Biden said at a CNN town hall in Baltimore last month that he would deal with the filibuster and long-delayed voting rights legislation after the infrastructure bills are passed. 

“We are frustrated just like everybody else, especially on this. And so the president’s going to continue to voice concerns, continue to fight to make sure that we really address the issue of voting rights, especially with all these pieces of legislation that [have been proposed] across the country,” Jean-Pierre said.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre
White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

Just last week, Martin Luther King lll  was arrested in front of the White House with about 60 other voting rights demonstrators. What’s more, Joe Madison, radio host and former national board member of the NAACP, announced on Monday that he is participating in a hunger strike until voting rights protections are passed in Congress. It is not known when the president will take up the issue of the filibuster, which is a major roadblock to passing the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Despite several attempts to bring the bills to the U.S. Senate floor for debate before a vote, Republicans have used the filibuster to stop the legislation from moving forward.

“[President Biden] sees this as a very important issue that needs to be addressed. And so he’s going to continue to do that,” said Jean-Pierre from the press briefing podium. “He did that when he was in Pennsylvania. He talked about it. He does that when he’s having conversations with congressional members, when he’s had conversations with civil rights leaders about how to move forward, and how to make sure that we’re protecting the right to vote.”

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