Biden’s infrastructure plan must aim for racial justice

We’ll finally know more next week. President Joe Biden is expected to head to Pittsburgh next Wednesday to unveil his infrastructure plan, with a price tag as high as $4 trillion.

Speculation so far is promising. Lots of federal funding will be proposed for not only roads and bridges, but also for tackling climate change.

But what we don’t know yet is this: Will it be explicit about privatization?

Will it take a page out of Trump’s playbook, using a smaller pot of public money to ​“leverage” private investment from Wall Street banks and multinational corporations? Will it promote so-called “public-private partnerships,” which drain money and take decision-making power away from local communities?

These are important questions. So much is at stake. Particularly, racial justice.

From slavery to Jim Crow and through the post-civil rights era, fights over infrastructure spending have long been tinged with racism.

The end of the Civil War brought a wave of new construction to the South, including hospitals, housing and the region’s first public schools. As the Brookings Institution’s Vanessa Williamson has documented, wealthy Southern whites ​“focused their critique of Reconstruction on rising government debt and excessive spending, painting government by Black people and poor whites as intrinsically corrupt.”

Fast forward to the 1950s and ‘60s. Once the civil rights movement won battles over desegregation, many white Americans withdrew their backing of well-funded public institutions and services. Conservatives began using privatization to attack still-popular public services like trash pick-up without seeming as though they were proposing service cuts.

More recently, a growing industry of multinational banks, construction firms, and private investors have lobbied state and local policymakers to sign infrastructure public-private partnerships. Private money has been used to build toll roads, water systems, prisons, and an increasing variety of infrastructure.

Maryland’s Prince George’s County, which is majority Black, just became the first jurisdiction in the country to sign a public-private partnership to build and maintain public schools.

Poor and working people, particularly those of color, have shouldered the worst outcomes of the privatization trend. Privatizing water systems and other infrastructure, including internet services, often has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. It also takes decision-making power away from these communities, contributing to systemic racism. 

Biden has committed his administration to racial equity. If he wants to live up to that, yes, the federal government needs to spend big on infrastructure. But it also has to say “no” to privatization.

For more content like this, subscribe to our weekly email newsletter for people who want government to work for all of us.

Photo by U.S. Secretary of Defense.