While the eyes of the entire nation — and the entire world — are rightfully fixed on the ongoing global pandemic caused by the coronavirus, the Trump administration is moving ahead, behind our backs, with policy changes that will worsen public health and could silence communities across the country. When we emerge from social distancing and return to our normal lives, we may find that some rights and protections we had taken for granted have vanished while no one was looking.
One such protection that is now under threat is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In January 2020, the administration proposed to dramatically curtail the input that communities like mine can provide for federal construction projects through NEPA — and now, Trump’s appointees are hard at work to finalize this terrible proposal. Before NEPA existed, federal infrastructure dollars were used to bulldoze and evict communities of color and low-income families in cities across the country and to erect literal barriers to jobs and economic opportunity without any input from affected citizens. My community of Rondo in St. Paul was one of them.
My community was a vibrant black community that sprang up during the Great Migration of African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South. By the 1930s, half of St. Paul’s black population lived in Rondo. It then became an oasis of working and middle-class families — one of the most dynamic black communities west of the Mississippi River. It was a railroad town that was unionized thanks to the Pullman porters. It was an intellectually curious town and a black haven, the Rondo we created.
Then that freeway, Interstate 94, came through and wiped us out.
Thanks to redlining and other racist policies in this country, we lacked political power — and more important, because NEPA and its regulations were not yet in existence, we lacked legal recourse to challenge the route of the freeway.
When the highway came through, it was not just the tangible loss — the homes that were razed and the businesses that had to close up shop. Intangible things were lost, too. That you could use the asset of a home to put your kids through school, to have economic security to pass on to your children. It was the dream of homeownership in America back in the 1950s — that is what was bulldozed away from us. It felt like an amputation.
The worst part? There was another viable route for the highway, called the northern route. Decades after the highway was built, we worked with honors students at Macalester College in St. Paul to take a closer look at what happened to Rondo. Through this collaboration, we determined that if there had been the kind of rigorous environmental review required by NEPA — which would have required both listening to community input and studying the cumulative impacts that would occur over time as a result of the freeway — there could have been a different outcome for Rondo.
But such a step depends on the commitments of good people, and we need the protection of the law. There are 1,200 Rondos scattered across America, all fighting their own battles and all either wishing they’d had NEPA in place to save their communities from the same fate as ours, or relying on NEPA to protect their communities and keep them healthy and safe.
If the Trump administration goes forward with watering down the regulations for public input and cumulative impacts consideration in the way that is currently proposed, stories like Rondo’s are going to happen again, and again, and again. The elimination of these existing regulations, and rules like them, are designed to keep communities like mine in the dark. It’s antithetical to good government, and it deprives the average citizen of the right to make his or her voice known. It’s devastating.
As someone who went through this process before communities even had a say, and who experienced the negative aftereffects, I hope this administration will seriously consider eliminating these proposed restrictions on public commentary — and instead make it easier for the public to comment and engage in the NEPA process. This will result in better, stronger projects that are better for communities and the public as a whole — which is, after all the role of the federal government — to serve the public and allow for the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Marvin Anderson, of St. Paul, is chair & CEO of the Rondo Center of Diverse Expression.