In his first State of the Union address March 1, President Biden closed the door on a trillion-dollar economic and civil rights agenda and snapped Democratic politics back into an ancient and unfortunate shape. A lost standoff with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) — who sat among the Republicans during Biden’s address — forced the president to abandon his Build Back Better plan and bail on promises to his party’s left flank.
While Biden touted many social spending initiatives — from early-childhood education to paid family leave — his framing proved noticeably different. Some of the most ambitious pieces of his earlier agenda disappeared completely, including expanded Medicare benefits. The president also embraced Clinton-era talk of reducing deficits and staving off inflation. “Economists call it ‘increasing the productive capacity of our economy,’ ” Biden explained. “I call it building a better America.”
His social proposals slashed, Biden continues to orchestrate what looks like the modern Infrastructure Presidency. His approach crested this past November, when the president signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, the supposed first step in his administration’s vow to rebuild the country’s middle class. Now it threatens to be the only step.
Governing through growth did not begin with Biden (or Bill Clinton). It’s a political path as old as Jim Crow. It’s also the surest road to even deeper racial and economic inequality, one that begins with politicians’ misguided faith in infrastructure.
In America, infrastructure performs political and economic miracles, not just by moving goods and services, but through its ability to deflect protest and political organizing, to liquidate Black wealth, to appease White voters weary of the demands of people of color and to shepherd costs and benefits — invisibly, swiftly — along racial lines.
It’s called structural racism, but infrastructural racism might be just as accurate, for it entails targeted devaluations of Black neighborhoods. It helps mortgage brokers underwrite housing segregation. It enables real estate agents and urban planners to carry out racial containment. It allows regulators to ignore landlord and merchant profiteering. And it emboldens the political class, all the while, to declare that infrastructure advances the common good.