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Old Buttigieg comments on race, infrastructure misrepresented after bridge collapse

Social media users are claiming Pete Buttigieg blamed the collapse of a bridge in Baltimore, Maryland on a racist design. This is false; the US transportation secretary's quote about systemic racism in the construction of some American infrastructure came in 2021 and was not in reference to the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which came crashing down after a cargo ship lost power and veered into a support beam.

"Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is taking zero blame for the accident today that occurred in Baltimore at the Francis Scott Key Bridge," says a March 26, 2024 post on X.

"Instead, he is blaming those that constructed the bridge saying it was designed with racism, just like racist bridges in New York."

<span>Screenshot from X taken March 29, 2024</span>
Screenshot from X taken March 29, 2024

The post includes video of Buttigieg saying, from the White House: "If an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach, or that would have been, in New York, was designed too low for it to pass by, but that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices."

The post -- and several others across Facebook, Instagram and TikTok -- followed the Francis Scott Key Bridge's collapse after the Singapore-flagged Dali container ship that lost power and propulsion rammed into it. The collision blocked one of the busiest US commercial harbors and sparked online conspiracy theories.

Emergency teams rescued from the frigid Patapsco River waters two members of an eight-man construction crew that had been repairing potholes on the bridge. The other six are presumed dead, with two bodies having been found in the river as of March 29.

Buttigieg said March 27 that the structure -- built in 1977 and named after the poet who penned the lyrics to the US national anthem -- was not made to survive the impact of a vessel the size of the Dali, which was heading to Sri Lanka when its crew was forced to issue a mayday call and drop anchor in a last-ditch effort to avoid disaster.

"What we do know is a bridge like this one, completed in the 1970s, was simply not made to withstand a direct impact on a critical support pier from a vessel that weighs about 200 million pounds, orders of magnitude bigger than cargo ships that were in service in that region at the time that the bridge was first built," Buttigieg said, telling reporters that it was "too early to speculate" what a National Transportation Safety Board investigation would find (archived here).

He added: "Some of the other bridge collapses that were of these proportions ... happened because of a design flaw, and the bridge spontaneously collapsed. This is, of course, not that. This was the result of an impact."

But he did not mention race during his March 27 briefing -- or in remarks he delivered a day earlier alongside Maryland Governor Wes Moore (archived here).

The comments in question were made years earlier, during a November 8, 2021 briefing on an infrastructure deal President Joe Biden would sign days later (archived here and here).

A reporter asked Buttigieg how the Biden administration planned on ensuring that the infrastructure package would honor its Justice40 Initiative, a federal goal of directing 40 percent of the benefits of certain investments toward disadvantaged communities, and also how he would "deconstruct the racism that was built into the roadways" (archived here).

Buttigieg replied: "As to where we target those dollars, you know, I'm still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a Black neighborhood, or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach, or that would have been, in New York, was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices."

The 2021 remarks did not reference the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

AFP has debunked other misinformation about the Baltimore bridge, including here, here, here and here.