A Powerful, Disturbing History of Residential Segregation in America

Aug 6 · 7 min read

A look at Richard Rothstein’s work “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America”

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

Known as a Distinguished Fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, Richard Rothstein, in his latest book, gives us a sweeping and disturbing historical analysis of how the United States government segregated nearly all of our major cities across the country, through numerous racially discriminatory housing policies. In The Color of Law, he delves into issues such as bank redlining, exclusionary zoning practices, public housing, restrictive housing covenants, and borrowing and lending practices for buying homes of which all were carefully created and sanctioned directly by the government at the federal, state, and local level to impose racial segregation among our communities nationwide.

The author’s main assertion throughout the book was that because the government participated in enforcing racially discriminatory housing laws, the government has an obligation to undo those laws and pursue new policies to remedy the damage done by unconstitutional practices. Consequently, doing so would benefit the communities at large that still struggle with the effects of past racial policies that have endured to this present day.

Segregation As De Jure, Not De Facto

One commonly held belief Rothstein attempts to dispel is that segregation in America is solely de facto, that is, segregation resulting from private practices. Rather, he argues that residential segregation occurred de jure, segregation recognized by the law and government policy. He agrees that segregation obviously began with privately-held beliefs and actions, but contends that residential segregation would not have been so systemic nationwide without government assistance.

Rothstein argues that up until the last quarter of the twentieth century, racially explicit policies at all levels of the government defined where whites and African-Americans should live. For instance, William Levitt, a prolific housing real estate developer during the mid-twentieth century, transformed areas of Long Island, New York into housing communities known as Levittown. Homeowners, however, were forbidden to sell or rent homes to people “other than members of the Caucasian race.” These restrictive housing covenants with language of this kind were common policy of housing projects all across America. Some home builders like Levitt blamed society at large claiming the community desired racially homogenous neighborhoods. Instances like Levittown, at face value, stand as examples of de facto segregation. But Rothstein claims that these appearances of de facto segregation aren’t that simple. He contends that the government at all levels abetted this injustice. He writes, “We have created a caste system in this country, with African-Americans kept exploited and geographically separate by racially explicit government policies. Although most of these policies are now off the books, they have never been remedied and their effects endure.”

The federal government supported the racially restrictive housing communities such as Levittown by guaranteeing low-interest bank loans for Levitt to build those houses, in the first place. The government even granted low-interest mortgage rates for interested home buyers. The government through programs such as the FHA (Federal Housing Agency) made it clear that housing developers sell to whites only in order to gain the incentives it was offering.

Furthermore, in the 1950s, even after a Supreme Court decision made racial housing covenants a federal crime nationwide, Rothstein reveals several instances where public officials and racially biased police failed to protect African-Americans who decided to live in white communities from unlawful intimidation and terror. Rothstein describes these instances throughout the book as heinous forms of de jure segregation. He writes further:

“Without our government’s purposeful imposition of racial segregation, the other causes — private prejudice, white flight, real estate steering, bank redlining, income differences, and self-segregation — still would have existed but with far less opportunity for expression.”

Thus segregation, Rothstein contends, was not solely de facto but in fact de jure.

Constitutional Violations

Moreover, in the eyes of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, residential segregation by state action was and is an illegality. For example, Rothstein points out that the Fifth Amendment was written to prohibit the federal government from treating citizens unfairly and the Fourteenth Amendment was established to prohibit states or local governments from treating people either unfairly or unequally. Government sponsorship of practices that denied African-Americans access to housing subsidies that were instead given to whites constitute unfair treatment and serve as a constitutional violation.

According to Rothstein, it is reasonable to understand that because the government decided to perpetuate second-class citizenship by treating African-Americans unfairly, the government is responsible for actively participating in racial discrimination and promoting segregation by failing to abide by the prohibitions of the Constitutional amendments. Although housing discrimination was unconstitutional since the Fourteenth and Fifthteenth Amendments were passed, no proper enforcement existed until the Fair Housing Act in 1968, which would then serve as a legal method for civil rights groups to challenge housing discrimination thereafter.

Strengths & Weaknesses

What is notable about Rothstein’s book is that he recognizes the limitations of his legal approach to the issue of residential segregation. He acknowledges that even if there was a nationally shared consensus that government policy devised an unconstitutional, de jure, system of residential segregation, litigation alone fails to be sufficient for remedying the issues today resulting from past housing discrimination practices. Rothstein notes that even though there is generally no judicial remedy for a policy that the Supreme Court wrongly approved in the past, it does not mean there is no constitutional remedy for such violations. He suggests that people must enforce the Constitution, via elected representatives, to implement a remedy. In addition, Rothstein contends that if we fail to recognize the ways in which the effects of de jure segregation have endured in society today, we will avoid confronting our constitutional obligations to reverse it.

Another noteworthy aspect of The Color of Law which, in my opinion, is its greatest strength is the vast amount of evidence Rothstein garners to destroy the notion that government played a minor role in de jure segregation across the United States. Exercising his skills as a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, Rothstein gathers evidence from the late 19th century onward that uncovers a policy of de jure segregation where nearly every presidential administration is found guilty. For instance, Rothstein explains that one of FDR’s New Deal initiatives, the Public Works Administration, built public housing projects that were intended for low to middle class white families exclusively. During World War II, FDR’s administration built homes for white defense plant workers, but left black workers and their families with temporary, poorly constructed dwellings.

Where Rothstein’s book falls short lies within the public policy recommendations he details in the last chapter that would potentially remedy the effects of residential segregation today. Frankly, most of his ideas have very little hope of gaining public acceptance, which he readily admits is true. For instance, he proposes withholding mortgage interest and property tax deductions from those living in neighborhoods that actively shut out blacks and the poor. He also considers policies to enforce states to mandate “fair share” requirements for low and moderate-income suburban housing with incentives for both developers and local communities.

Why This Book Is Important

I believe that in order to adequately address the issues of poverty today, especially in the United States, race must be a part of the discussion. I am well aware that conversations around the history of racism are often polarizing and extremely uncomfortable. But as we strive to address poverty in this country, I firmly believe that we cannot ignore the reality of the practiced racism of both local communities and the federal, state, and local governments that contributed to the impoverishment of many African American communities today. Therefore, in order to accurately address the plight of the poor, policies must be developed that pay attention to the interconnected reality of how past racially discriminatory housing policies have contributed to the impoverishment of minority communities today.

Studies from the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington D.C. demonstrate that all major metropolitan areas in the country have existing patterns of residential segregation. This issue has contributed to economic inequalities of not just black and white Americans, but all other people as well. Yet, the inequality remains the most striking between black and white Americans. African Americans generally have less upward economic mobility in high poverty and racially concentrated neighborhoods than others who live in non-segregated neighborhoods. White Americans do experience poverty but at a rate that is far less persistent than minorities. Our government policies should acknowledge the racial inequalities of poverty and seek to address it, so that communities don’t continue in a repeating cycle of poverty and hindered opportunity.

The reason why I think this book’s account of residential segregation is crucial because our attempts at trying to solve the plight of the poor, whether that’s through engaging in federal government affairs or engaging in local community efforts, will fall short and miss important factors that should be considered while trying to alleviate poverty today. When we try to examine the reality of the poor today, we should seek to understand why they are poor. If we can understand why they are poor, then we can move forward in helping them the best way possible. If anything, this book is a call to critically engage the issue of residential segregation and how that has led to poverty for a whole group of people, rather than reflexively dismiss it altogether.

Regardless of the many policies that could remedy residential segregation, there still remains no easy fix. Yet Rothstein remains hopeful despite this fact, trusting this generation with the ability to solve these present issues. Though not perfect, still The Color of Law is a well-researched introduction into the troubling history of racial segregation in our cities nationwide, and it is designed to prompt its readers to think about this revealed history and then consider ways to reverse the issue at hand. As if to provoke our consciences even further, Rothstein constantly reminds his readers throughout the book that America has a constitutional obligation to remedy de jure segregation in housing, and this uniquely American story must be told if we are going to continue to call ourselves a constitutional democracy.

(For an engaging overview of the entire book, check out the film, narrated by the author himself, at the link here!)

Marcus Devine

Written by

22 | from washington d.c. area | poli-sci major | trying to beat the status quo

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