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

It’s common knowledge in America that our communities are segregated, but what’s less common knowledge is how this segregation came to be and what role our government had in making it happen. In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute carefully lays out the argument that segregation is the direct result of federal, state, and local government action and inaction. And in promulgating segregationist policies, he argues, the government has failed to uphold the 13th Amendment, which authorized Congress to “pass all laws necessary and proper for abolishing all badges and incidents of slavery in the United States.”

In each chapter of the book, Rothstein add another layer to his case. Some elements of state-sponsored segregation were familiar to me. For example, I knew that the government often denied FHA loans to black families. And I knew that law enforcement often stood by and didn’t take action when white citizens committed acts of violence against black citizens who moved into their neighborhoods. What’s startling is how segregation seeped into every aspect of the home-buying and home-rental process and how, once any segregationist practice was deemed illegal, whites found some way to circumvent the law and preserve the separation between white and black.

In one example, public housing was made available to both black and white Americans, but the rule was that federal housing projects were supposed to reflect the racial composition of their neighborhoods. You may be thinking that this was a way to reinforce the already established segregation, but it goes further than that. The Public Works Administration also segregated neighborhoods that weren’t previously segregated. And, of course, the whites-only projects were in better locations, closer to major employers and offering better amenities, such as parks and community centers. Housing available to black people was often less well built, and there was less of it, creating overcrowded conditions.

Once overt segregation by government became illegal, governments continued allowing segregation by allowing communities to form covenants in which white home buyers had to agree not to sell their homes to black people. And when those were illegal, the Federal Housing Administration flouted the law by continuing to give loans to people buying properties that included these restrictive covenants. The belief was that allowing white communities to integrate would lower property values, but Rothstein notes that the shortages of housing that allowed black people meant that middle-class black home buyers were often willing to pay over market value for homes in white neighborhoods. It was only white prejudice that lowered the value of homes in integrated communities.

Rothstein tends to take the long view on this problem, focusing on the overall patterns. He includes examples of policies in specific cities and the experiences of a few individual home buyers. The details are complex, but Rothstein’s clear and deliberate approach makes the stories easy to follow—and infuriating. He has a point of view, but he focuses on the facts, uncovered over years of research. (I first became familiar with his work when he wrote several articles on school segregation for a magazine I used to work for.)

I could share lots more examples of specific injustices, like the marketing of subprime loans to low-income, predominantly black communities. Or how once black families made inroads into white communities, black schools were moved as far away from these integrated communities as possible, forcing the families to move back to black neighborhoods. And then there’s the fact that black neighborhoods tend to be in areas adjacent to industrial zones. And the fact that highways were often built to separate black communities from white neighborhoods, demolishing black homes in the process.

The question that confronts us now is why does this matter now? These policies are in the past. It’s important to know our history, sure, but people are free to move wherever they want now—if they can afford it, which is no small matter. Rothstein explains how in being unable to get into the housing market during the boom years of the early and middle twentieth century, black families missed out on a significant opportunity to accumulate wealth in the form of home equity. That wealth would have been passed down to the next generation—and the next and so on.

At the end of the book, he proposes some steps the government could take now to remedy these past wrongs. But the most important first step is making people aware. And that’s what his book does. It’s a valuable addition to the conversation on racial justice in the United States.

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

  1. Yes yes I really want to read this! It seems like the kind of book I’ll want to not just read but own — the kind of thing I’ll need to refer back to over and over as the years go on. The more I know about it, the more I believe that thing Gene Demby at NPR always says, that housing segregation is everything.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m planning to hold onto my copy because I feel like it’ll be a good reference for looking up facts that pop up in the news. It has robust notes and references, so plenty of possibilities for further reading, too.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Doug Blackmon mentions this in part of his book, Slavery by Another Name. Sounds like this is a book I should read when I can stand more nonfiction.

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