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Book Review: The Color of Law

Richard Rothstein -The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America Paperback / 368 pages / Liveright / May 2018

If we are ever to dismantle systemic racism, it will require aggressive remedies to make that victory sustainable.

That is Richard Rothstein’s suggestion for the United States in “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” The book was first published in hardcover in 2017, but seems evermore relevant now with the protests against anti-Black racism that have occurred in cities worldwide. “The Color of Law” is often cited as a must-read book for those who want to understand the history of racial inequality in America, and how systemic racism continues to impact African Americans today.

In the book, Rothstein argues that for generations, the U.S. government promoted policies that prohibited, and at the very least made it extremely difficult, for African Americans to purchase or rent proper housing, contrary to the country’s constitution. It is a bold claim, but one which he supports with an abundance of evidence that few could deny. 

Government sanctioned racial discrimination did not end with the abolition of slavery in 1865. Rothstein reminds us that almost 20 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted civil rights for African Americans as not including housing discrimination. In what only can be described as a miscarriage of justice, it would take until the Civil Rights Act of 1968 for that interpretation to be corrected. After more than a century of African Americans as a group having difficulty freely choosing where they wanted to live, building home equity, and missing out on the so-called “American dream,” by 1968 the damage had already been done. The wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans continues to increase, and many U.S. cities have racially segregated neighborhoods and suburbs. This is why Rothstein writes that if the United States fails to recognize that the effects of government-sanctioned housing segregation continue today, it will avoid any constitutional obligation to remedy it.

Backed by empirical data, a decade of research, and interviews with housing experts, Rothstein demonstrates that the sins of the past were not subtle nor impossible to find.

He proves that African Americans were unconstitutionally prevented from integrating into middle-class, usually white, neighborhoods, and that the U.S. federal government is responsible. This happened even in very liberal and progressive cities, such as San Francisco and Chicago. Since he demonstrates that the U.S. government’s actions were explicit, he believes that same government has a duty to atone for those actions. 

Why does he believe that the U.S. government is responsible? For generations, they never enforced the civil rights of African Americans with respect to housing, and never penalized states, cities, financial institutions, insurers, builders, city planners, or other professionals who did so. In 1917, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial zoning ordinances were discriminatory, cities would find ways to circumvent the law to impose segregation anyway, sometimes as per the recommendations of the federal government. City planners would designate land as industrial only if it was near or within an African American neighborhood. If too many African Americans moved into a neighborhood that was zoned residential, the zoning would be changed to industrial. Such racial zoning ordinances were almost never applied to white neighborhoods. The poorer quality of the African American neighborhoods was then used as a justification against integration. It was so commonplace for U.S. urban planners to use economic zoning as a means to strengthen racial segregation, that they would say this openly during speeches at professional conferences. It was a dirty little open secret. National leaders in real estate would also write industry papers with similar pro-segregation views, sometimes cloaking their comments in race-neutral urbanist jargon, but sometimes overtly revealing their motives.

Rather than promote the integration of races, the U.S. government promoted segregation, allowing states and cities to exclude people from newly developing areas based on race, especially from the 1930s onward. For example, real estate agents would go into some white neighborhoods where a few African Americans had moved in to convince the white residents to sell their homes at a discount before more African Americans decide to move in. Insurers would never issue mortgages to white Americans who wanted to move to African American areas. Neighborhoods or blocks with even a small percentage of African Americans were coded as areas with the highest risk of defaulting on loans, an assessment known as ‘redlining.’ While this practice trapped African Americans into specific areas, many white Americans were given loans to move to newly built suburbs. Also, where neighborhoods were already segregated, the U.S. government-imposed segregation. 

Richard Rothstein -The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.
Richard Rothstein -The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

Rothstein brilliantly details the systemic racism that African American face in housing, and how blatant the government’s actions were. The first federal housing projects for civilians were segregated from the beginning, with no African Americans allowed. When public housing was eventually built for them, they were crammed into high-rise projects where they lacked social services, access to employment, child care, access to reliable transit, and general wellbeing. Contrast that to white public housing projects that had quality services, maintenance, and amenities. In the private sector, builders who wanted to develop housing for African Americans rarely received financial assistance from the government, resulting in lesser quality buildings, but builders who developed white suburbs like Levittown, New York, could always get financing. 

To emphasize the racism involved in how the U.S. government, through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) financed developments, Rothstein gives the example of a Detroit builder who was denied financing for a project for whites that just happened to be next to an African American neighborhood. The only way he got his financing approved was by building a half-mile, 6-foot high, 1-foot wide concrete wall between the two areas.

Rothstein also covers the impact of private agreements written into deeds called restrictive covenants between sellers and buyers that limited purchases to non-white people, as well as the destruction done to established African American neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal. He also writes about how the moving of schools based on race ensured that parents moved to areas where they would be segregated with people who look like them.

At the end of the book, he reluctantly suggests some possible remedies for the U.S. government to take. He suggests the repealing of exclusionary zoning ordinances so that affordable housing can be built in all suburbs, and that inclusionary zoning be more aggressively applied within cities. He also believes that the U.S. government should subsidize homeownership for African Americans in the suburbs where they were historically banned. The reason he only suggests remedies rather than prescribe them is because he is certain that for any remedy to be sustainable, the country has to accept the truth first. He argues that until the public sentiment shifts, when Americans begin to question white supremacy, and question the myth of de facto segregation, nothing will change. Until the public demands that the U.S. government remedies their unconstitutional imposition of housing segregation from the past, by taking aggressive steps in the present, America will continue to be racially segregated in its future.

“The Color of Law” is definitely a must-read book for architects, urbanists, interior designers, and anyone interested in housing as a human right. You do not have to be an American or live in the United States to appreciate this book. Racial discrimination in housing is an international issue that resonates, and though Rothstein details its American history, we who live in Canada, UK, France, Australia, and other countries should be aware that a form of it exists where we live too.

Review by Phil Roberts

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