For Black Michiganders, infrastructure bill brings hope for change

Leaders praise funding for lead pipe removal, public transit, internet access, and more

By: - November 11, 2021 5:00 pm

A billboard urging Black Detroiters to vote before the Nov. 3, 2020 election | Ken Coleman

The recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure legislation has big implications for racial equity in Michigan, Black leaders said this week.

Lavora Barnes, the Michigan Democratic Party chair, said this “once-in-a-generation investment in good paying jobs, infrastructure, and broadband Internet access will support folks from Houghton to Detroit.”

“In 2020, Black voters in Wayne County, Oakland County, and every corner of the state delivered a historic win for President [Joe] Biden with the hopes that he would make good on his promise to address critical problems like replacing lead pipes, rebuilding roads and bridges, and updating infrastructure to protect Michiganders from extreme weather events,” Barnes, who is African American, stated on Tuesday.

The U.S. House on Friday approved the bill, and Biden is expected to sign the legislation Monday. In a statement, Barnes suggested the legislation “would deliver” for Black Michiganders, who compose about 14% of the state’s 9.9 million residents.

Barnes argued the legislation would:

  • Ensure every Michigan household has access to reliable high-speed internet, helping lower costs and improving internet access for Black Americans, who are 9% less likely than their white peers to have high-speed internet, according to the Biden White House.
  • Eliminate lead pipes and provide the largest investment in clean drinking water in American history. Lower-income families of color in Michigan are at the highest risk for lead exposure at home and in schools.
  • Invest in public transit, reducing commute times, and addressing the backlog of repairs. In Detroit, 92% of transit riders are Black.
  • Place roughly $65 billion toward upgrading the nation’s power infrastructure and reducing pollution. Black residents are almost five times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than our white counterparts, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health.
  • Remediate brownfields and providing $21 billion to cleanup efforts “while providing good-paying union jobs to our communities.” About 26% of Black Americans live within three miles of Superfund sites that can lead to elevated lead levels in children’s blood.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) is Michigan’s only African American congressional member. She enthusiastically supported and voted for the infrastructure plan. She has also called for her Capitol Hill colleague to go a step further and back Biden’s nearly $2 trillion Build Back Better proposal to provide funding to lower the cost of childcare for working families, expand the availability of high-quality childcare, and raise wages for childcare workers.

She tweeted on Saturday:

“For years, we’ve heard too much talk about infrastructure week. But last night, Congress made it happen. The HISTORIC Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal fixes our crumbling infrastructure, replaces lead pipes & creates good-paying jobs. Next stop: Passing the Build Back Better Act.”

The Michigan Poor People’s Campaign, a statewide group that advocates for racial equity and is composed in part by African Americans, backed the infrastructure bill and on Wednesday called for Capitol Hill lawmakers to pass the Build Back Better Act.

“It’s huge for the people who really need it,” said the Rev. Derrick Knox, pastor of Church of Elohim in Lansing and member of the Metro Lansing Poor People’s Campaign. Knox is African American. “Historically, this country has tried to build from the top down… and we have not looked out for the poor people in this country, those who have hit rock bottom.”


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.