The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Widely heralded as a “masterful” (Washington Post) and “essential” (Slate) history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law offers “the most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state, and local governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation” (William Julius Wilson). Exploding the myth of de facto segregation arising from private prejudice or the unintended consequences of economic forces, Rothstein describes how the American government systematically imposed residential segregation: with undisguised racial zoning; public housing that purposefully segregated previously mixed communities; subsidies for builders to create whites-only suburbs; tax exemptions for institutions that enforced segregation; and support for violent resistance to African Americans in white neighborhoods. A groundbreaking, “virtually indispensable” study that has already transformed our understanding of twentieth-century urban history (Chicago Daily Observer), The Color of Law forces us to face the obligation to remedy our unconstitutional past. 13 illustrations

Community Review

  • Finally, somebody takes the time to confirm what many of us had always suspected, that is was the law that prevented integration. I grew up one of the all black communities the author talked about. Made up of temporary housing left over the WW2. My Father a returning war vet, tried, again and again, to get a VA loan to get a house the only places where the houses were, the white communities where he watched white vets get their loans and move out years before. Finally my parents saved their money and checked out several places (By then fair housing was the law in California but it did nothing about federal law forbidding financing), they found a white owner not only willing to sell but loaned them part of the down payment (this was in the mid 60’s, 20 years after the end of WW2). Not only did that owner catch flack but the other white neighbors were not happy with us moving in, one of whom was an officer…in the German army during the war(so an African-American vet can’t move into a neighborhood that a former enemy can – just because he’s white?).
    We were “lucky” there was no violence, many neighbors just ostracized us, and a few wanted to buy us out. Other Black families who moved out found them all put into the same block. Imagine in the 60’s in an era where there was no internet, faxes, bulletin boards, nor large realtors like Century 21. Realtors were all local, and territorial and yet they all decided to forgo competition and agreed to block place all the black families in one block where they can be “monitored”.
    Every time I hear someone spread that myth “Oh Black people don’t want to move into white neighborhoods because they love being among their own” I straighten them out, African Americans never had a choice!
  • I originally wrote a dissertation-length review of this book before opting to delete it and simply say: if you want to sing a recurring chorus of “there’s no f***ing way this can be true?!” while learning more than you ever thought possible, about a topic you thought you already knew a decent amount about: then you need to buy this book (and some pencils for marking up the margins). It is the most uncomfortable, disheartening, damning, and critically important book I may have ever read. Everyone, and I mean everyone, needs to know this history (and the facts that back it up). There are no acceptable excuses for this “forgotten history”, and it is now up to our generation to find an acceptable path forward, while never downplaying the horrors of our past.
  • When William Julius Wilson writes that a book is “the most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state, and local governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation,” it grabs your attention. Rothstein’s book is exactly that–a seminal work on the history of housing discrimination that is required reading for anyone who cares about the effect of residential segregation on cities and schools in our country.
    Rothstein demonstrates that such segregation isn’t the result of just or even primarily individual choices, such as “white flight,” as has long been popularly understood–what legal experts call “de facto” segregation. Instead, with example after example, he proves that housing segregation is the result of decades of explicit government policies–“de jure” discrimination–which prevented blacks and whites from living together as a matter of law (not just personal preference) throughout most of the 20th century.
    In just one of the many examples Rothstein gives, he cites the case of Wallace Stegner, the fiction writer, who was recruited to teach at Stanford immediately after WWII. Housing was scarce across the country during this post-war period. Stegner and friends formed a cooperative to purchase a 260-acre ranch in Palo Alto in which they planned to build 400 affordable homes for low-paid professors and other working-class families. The co-op had 150 members, three of whom were black. But as part of its official policy, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) wouldn’t insure loans to a cooperative or development that included black residents. And no bank would issue a loan or a mortgage to any builder or developer without this government backing. Thus, the cooperative was effectively barred from creating integrated housing–even when its members wanted it! Their “choice,” in fact, wasn’t a choice–but was the result of “de jure” discrimination. Because the Veterans’ Administration also relied on FHA rules for underwriting, black servicemen were similarly barred from receiving the same VA loans for housing that white vets enjoyed. As Rothstein shows, such practices weren’t just characteristic of the Jim Crow south, but occurred in every metropolitan area and region of the country.
    As a result, blacks were barred from participating in the post-war housing boom and the wealth this boom created for the generations that followed, resulting in the wealth discrepancy that is still evident today. These government policies also effectively combined to prevent blacks from working at better jobs (located far from where they were allowed to live) or attending better schools. Instead, blacks were frequently confined to rental apartments, which actually cost more than comparable housing would cost in white neighborhoods, further eroding any economic gains blacks might make.
    As Rothstein shows, in the rare instances that African Americans did manage to buy housing in white neighborhoods, they typically encountered racial violence to drive them from their homes; such violence was tolerated or even encouraged by local authorities. As Rothstein shows, school boards similarly promoted segregated housing as official policy. At every turn, for decade after decade, it was virtually impossible for blacks to improve their station by moving into middle-class neighborhoods where whites also lived and where economic and educational opportunities congregated.
    Such policies, although clearly unconstitutional, persisted throughout most of the 20th century, Rothstein writes, and continue to have a profound influence on the prospects for blacks today. Even the conservative justices of the Supreme Court have acknowledged that “de jure” discrimination must be remedied. It is thus Rothstein’s conclusion that we must acknowledge and address the effects of this injustice, whose discriminatory impact is ongoing. Along with Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted,” Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” demands a radical rethinking of how we conceive of segregation–and how to address it.

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