Photo above courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/josepha/7992398547/
On a cold December afternoon, 1955, Rosa Parks decided to take a courageous stand against the systemic and evident racism permeating through the public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. 57 years later, despite the Civil Rights Act and the desegregation of all public transportation systems the problem of race has not disappeared. Instead, racism has masked itself in an equally sinister form behind federal funding and white flight. Today, inner cities are neglected from federal transportation funds which have left inner city residents lacking access to employment, health care, and housing.
The transportation policy of the United States is predicated off of the allocation of funds towards different organizations. For urban areas, these funds go to organizations called Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs. These groups receive funding from both the states and federal government and they choose where to distribute the funding however they see fit. MPOs are structured with members from local areas, with most (if not all) of them coming from suburban areas. For that reason, the majority of the funding typically goes to the interests of suburban communities by means of highway funding instead of benefiting the people who live in urban areas by means of public transportation.
In “Where We Need to Go: A Civil Rights Roadmap for Transportation Equity,” the Leadership Conference Education Fund argues that this funding toward suburban communities has many negative effects towards the populations of the inner city, writing, “By investing disproportionately in highways that expand metropolitan areas, funding construction far from urban centers, and tipping decision-making power away from urban and inner suburban constituencies, our transit planning has placed inequitable burdens on low-income people, people with disabilities, and people of color by entrenching the segregation of racial minorities and increasing the concentration of poverty.” (LCEF)
On the other hand, two of the readings that we analyzed this year in class apply very much to this situation. The first one is Thucydides’s The History of the Peloponnesian War. In the part titled “The Melian Dialogue,” he argues that the strong do what they can, but that the weak suffer what they must. In this case, the argument would be that the MPOs can continue to send funding to the highways and ignore the populations living in the cities. The justification for this is that the people living in suburbs are more valuable to society and provide more benefit for America as a whole.
I wholeheartedly disagree with this argument. I think it is very unfair for these organizations to be able to take advantage of the lives of the people living in the inner cities. First and foremost, most people no longer have a quality opportunity to work. The Leadership Conference Education Fund article makes the argument that there has been a migration of low paying jobs from the city to the suburbs, but the people who need those jobs are not living in the suburbs, nor can they afford to move to the suburbs. Outside of urban America, there is an expectation that people have vehicles, which means they do not have a quality public transportation system. This lack of publicized options causes a problem because these inner-city populations do not have a feasible way to get to the jobs they are trying to sustain.
The argument that Thucydides would make is that these ‘disposable populations’ do not need these jobs because they have no benefit to society. He would also say that there is no reason to help them because the MPO’s should act in their own self-interest, which would be putting all of the money towards the development of highways because that is the type of infrastructure they use.
The other reading from class that relates to this is “Reflection on the Revolution in France,” by Edmund Burke. In this passage, he argues that there is no such thing as equality and people should do what the individuals who have more power than them ask. In this case, Burke would argue that MPO’s are doing the right thing because they are not trying to help the people below them, but they are maintaining the power structures already in place. He would also argue that institutional racism is a god thing because it ‘keeps people in their places’ and does not allow for people to escape cycles of poverty.
My opinion is that this mindset is also very wrong. I think all people should have equal opportunity to succeed, and a very important way for that condition to improve would be to make sure funding would be given to people living in urban areas instead of it simply being allocated to highways. In her article “Can Politics Practice Compassion?” Elizabeth Porter makes the argument that people have an ethical and moral responsibility to act with compassion towards everyone. I think that this argument is much truer than anything argued by Thucydides or Burke because it implies that we should give other people chances to prosper in life.