To Lift Up Communities of Color, Fix Public Transit

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America is experiencing a reckoning, again. Since our country’s “founding” in 1776, we have grappled with its original sin of racism, a moral disgrace whose penance has taken us through abolition, the Civil War, the 13th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act, and the current wave of protests in response to police brutality. Today’s struggle justifiably grabs headlines, but the fight for reform in policing doesn’t tell the full story.

Policies as mundane as infrastructure and accessibility represent the next frontier in our struggle. The fight for fairness and equity lives in our tax, social and urban policies, perhaps even more than in our words and rhetoric. While not glamorous, these policies offer communities of color the access to education and economic opportunity to lift themselves up, the benefits of which pave a path to higher economic status and build political power that is desperately lacking. 

My home in Portland, Oregon, like most metro regions in the U.S., has a long history of racial bias and inequities infused in its transportation planning. Over the past few years, people of color and marginalized voices have come together to design a measure on our local ballot that aims to build a more equitable transportation system by making long-overdue investments in our roadways and transit system. 

This measure, Get Moving 2020, would fund a range of transportation improvements, including expanding and electrifying our bus network and light rail system and providing free transit passes to youth. It would also add sidewalks, crosswalks, streetlights and safe routes to school to ensure that our families can safely walk, bike, ride and roll around our region. The investments made would address historic inequities in a way never seen before in our region. 

Right now, where you live in Portland dictates how much pollution you breathe, whether or not your kids can walk to school safely and how long you sit in traffic. People of color are more likely to die from being killed by a car and more likely to be transit-dependent — even though they are also more likely to live far away from transit service. And access to reliable transportation is one of the most important barriers to escape poverty.

These inequities give new meaning to the term “structural racism.” In the past, Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) voices have largely gone unheard or ignored as cities and regions considered investments in traffic, safety and transit. But this measure will directly invest in Black and Brown communities that have been ignored in our transportation infrastructure.

It would make transit improvements like new light rail service and a rapid bus lane network that will help people get back to work. More than 60% of the transit investments are in areas where more people of color live.

 It would institute safe routes to schools, new marked crosswalks and roadway improvements that could save lives. Approximately 77% of the hundreds of lives that this measure is estimated to save are likely to be the lives of people of color.

It would create more than 37,500 jobs building this infrastructure. Black and Brown people are hit hardest by this economic downturn and these family-wage jobs will put local people back to work.

Let’s be clear: This is the kind of careful, intentional investment we need now to make this a more equitable region. The money has to come from somewhere, and in this case, it would come from a modest .75% payroll tax on businesses that have more than 25 employees.

Unfortunately, this measure faces unexpected opposition, led by one of our own regional Fortune 500 companies: Nike. This is the same company that made a show of its stands against racism in recent ads that said “don’t turn your back on racism” and featured Colin Kaepernick taking the knee.

It’s not enough to merely release a statement or to produce a powerful ad. As a society, as elected leaders, activists and voters, we must demand that our policies reflect our values. Our urban infrastructure is necessary not only for us to live our lives, but to live those values. 

Nike Inc. hasinvested $250,000 in the opposition campaign, more than twice as much as any other donor (Intel Corp. contributed $100,000). The opposition campaign these businesses are funding says that the pandemic is the “wrong time” to impose a tax that they say will penalize businesses for hiring. 

This is fearmongering: The tax would not kick in until 2022, which shows just how disingenuous and deceptive the opponents’ claims are. And the measure is structured so that families and 91% of our region’s businesses (which have 25 or fewer employees) won’t pay the tax needed to make these overdue investments.

Nike’s stockjumped to a record in recent months and the CEO’s reported compensation totaled $53.5 million. We are asking our largest companies to pay their fair share so their workers and our communities can safely get around our region, and so we can create new jobs and make investments in our crumbling infrastructure, all while addressing the urgent equity needs of our region.

If this year has shown us anything, it is that we have no time to wait. Our life choices under Covid-19 may be our present, but they are not our future. Transit remains unaffordable and inconvenient for many who are dependent upon it. People of color, youth, older adults and people with disabilities are still affected by preventable traffic violence at disproportionate rates. We are still in a worsening climate crisis. Transportation emissions still account for the largest contributions to greenhouse gases, and they’resteadily rising in Portland. And people of color are still the most directly impacted.

We have a long way to go to address racial inequities in our transportation system, but passing the Get Moving measure is an important first step to address — and correct — the neglect and harms of the past. We invite business leaders in our community to stand with us and help get our region back to work, moving again, and finally start to build the system we ALL deserve.

Editor’s Note: Asked by Bloomberg for a response, Nike declined to comment on the measure, but cited its donations to racial justice causes as exhibiting its commitment to its values. 

Marcus C. Mundy is executive director of the Coalition of Communities of Color, a Portland-based alliance that supports a collective racial justice efforts to improve outcomes for communities of color.  

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