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Can a bridge be racist? | Not to Get Political But

Given the headline, you probably think this is going to be some weird, untimely April Fools joke.

But a clip of United States Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg discussing highway designs that he deemed “racist” resurfaced on social media, sparking controversy.

Annika Morris | Senior Graphic Artist

This clip came to light in response to the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore on March 26. A cargo ship crashed into the bridge, causing it to collapse into the water. 

The clip, however, was from 2021, when Buttigieg stood at the White House discussing the architecture of highway bridges. It was misinterpreted that Buttigieg was essentially calling the Key Bridge “racist.” 

That misinterpretation was only more apparent by the text put overtop the video on Facebook that read, “PETE BUTTIGIEG SAYS FRANCIS SCOTT KEY BRIDGE WAS RACIST.” Go figure.

In light of the Baltimore bridge collapse, which caused the deaths of six construction workers, Buttigieg received harsh criticism for the insensitive timing of this statement — despite the timing of this particular statement being completely wrong. 

All this discourse, however, has led me to a question: can a bridge be racist?

“If an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach, or would have been, in New York was designed too low for it to pass by, that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices,” Buttigieg said in the 2021 clip.

I honestly agree with this take. If there are intentional infrastructural designs to an edifice that limit the existence and abilities of a marginalized group of people, then that structure — or at least the people who designed it — is racist.

Beyond Buttigieg’s comments, there are other considerations to keep in mind about why or how the Key Bridge, or any other structure, could be considered racist.

One has to do with the man the bridge is named after, as Francis Scott Key was a slave owner. 

According to the National Park Service, Key likely purchased his first enslaved person at the beginning of the 19th century, and he owned six enslaved people by 1820. His family also owned slaves when he was born, and one of his children is known to have owned slaves.

As an attorney, Key opposed abolition by defending the rights of other slave owners to regain runaway “property” and helping establish the American Colonization Society, which is vile. 

Plus, “The Star Spangled Banner,” which Key is most famous for writing, “harbored racist conceptions of American citizenship and human potential” with its declaration of the United States being “the land of the free,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.

So yeah, Key was a racist man — that’s undeniable. And if the question of whether the Key Bridge is racist boils down to the person it’s named after, then I would agree. This is just another example of the debate over renaming military bases and taking down Confederate statues we’ve been having in recent years.

One more argument for this unique discussion of architectural racism is the process in which said structure is built. I don’t believe this to be the case for the Key Bridge, but other examples of historical structures were built under highly problematic conditions that should be acknowledged. 

For example, Mount Vernon and Monticello, the famed residences of U.S. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were known to have been built using slave labor. These structures are notable for the founding fathers who lived in them, yes, but we should also acknowledge the physical legacy of American slavery that they represent. 

So, at the end of the day, the answer is yes — a bridge can be racist.

But as long as we acknowledge the history behind their design, the people they commemorate and how they were built, let’s not let our ability to use these structures — and forgive me for the joke — collapse.

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One Comment

  1. Here we go again. Now some say a bridge named after Francis Scott Key is racist. We are quick to note the transgressions of others, individually and corporately.
    Political correctness is out of control again. How can anything be named after anyone? To be mortal is to be with spiritual deficits. Bad things have happened across America
    No landmark or memorial will ever be dedicated to a perfect person because none exist. Is it time everything in America generic in some way?