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Documentary to Explore Racial Discrimination in Transportation Planning

Beavercreek, Ohio, nabbed its own infamous place in civil rights history last year, when the Federal Highway Administration ruled that the suburb had violated anti-discrimination laws by blocking bus service from nearby Dayton.

The Beavercreek case marked the first time civil rights activists had successfully filed this type of administrative complaint with the FHWA against a public agency for violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Since the law was passed, dozens of these complaints have been filed, but not until Beavercreek did advocates use this mechanism to compel action by a local government, according to the maker of a new documentary. The decision gave Dayton area transit riders access to a bus route to a growing, mostly-white suburb that had sought to keep them out.

The Beavercreek case illustrates larger, more widespread problems with America's transportation system, say researchers at Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. The Kirwan Institute is producing a one-hour documentary exploring the Beavercreek case and how racism can influence transportation decision making. The filmmakers hope to air the show on PBS after its completion this spring.

I got in touch with producer Matt Martin about the project via email. Martin noted that in a Title VI administrative complaint, the plaintiff must only show there was "disparate impact" on protected classes of people, rather than the much-tougher standard of intentional discrimination required in civil rights cases that go to court. Raising awareness of the administrative complaint as a tool for local activists and preserving its usefulness is one of the film's main goals, Martin says.

Here is our short Q & A.

Why is this Beavercreek case so important?

During our interview with Warren Whitlock, associate administrator of the Federal Highway Administration Office of Civil Rights, he said that this was the first time ever that FHWA had issued a Title VI finding like this. They receive 15 to 30 complaints a year, and have had a few complaints go through the investigation stage in the past, but this marked a turning point for the agency when they moved to actually enforce Title VI the way they did in Beavercreek. We see that as an incredibly important aspect of this story.

It's also an example of how local decisions are often made, not just in Beavercreek, but in communities across the country. Fear and bias become the undercurrent, language is coded, and the outcomes of such processes can tend to have the same impact on communities of color as more explicitly discriminatory processes had before 1964.

What do you hope will be the result of the film?

One of the things we hope to accomplish through this film... [is] to show how racism and discrimination has evolved over the years. Though formerly it was less veiled and the villains and victims were more obvious, today it is often difficult to indict a particular person or organization for wrongdoing, while the outcomes remain just as effective. For instance, none of the city council members made explicit statements about wanting to prevent people of color from entering Beavercreek, but their decision to deny [Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority's] application would have had that kind of effect.

Likewise, when John Crawford III was shot in the Beavercreek Wal-Mart (which happpens to be along the new stretch of the bus route) in August of this year, the grand jury refused to indict the police officer who was working off of what the dispatcher had relayed, who could only go by what the in-store 9-1-1 caller was sharing. Nevertheless we still lost another innocent young black man to an unnecessary incident informed by implicit bias. So one of the things we hope to accomplish is to update people's perspective on racism and discrimination to reflect 21st century realities.

Here's another peek at the film, featuring an interview with Ellis Jacobs, an attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, the Dayton civil rights group that brought the complaint. 

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