Richard Rothstein’s Book Talk: The Color of Law

Richard Rothstein’s Book Talk: The Color of Law

Richard Rothstein’s Book Talk: The Color of Law

Many people believe that residential segregation in America is caused by “de facto segregation” (a separation of groups occurring from natural conditions or preferences), instead of resulting from “de jure” segregation (segregation by law). But, in Professor Richard Rothstein’s new book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, he offers up solid evidence proving that this belief is a myth. “Without government requirements, rules and regulations, we would not have been able to create the segregated landscape that we have today,” said Rothstein. On September 6th, during his Office for the Advancement of Research (OAR) Book Talk, Rothstein made sure that the audience at John Jay College knew both the history and facts behind how our federal, state, and local governments explicitly segregated our country.

What led to residential segregation
Dating the start of residential segregation to the 1930s, Rothstein explained how it began with the public housing program created under the 1937 Housing Act. “Under the New Deal and during The Depression, segregated housing projects were built for working class families,” Rothstein said. “They made separate projects for whites, and separate projects for blacks. This went on through WWII.” These housing programs greatly impacted—and are still impacting—the demographics of many neighborhoods in our country, yet education about residential segregation has always been severely lacking. In most textbooks, “there’s only one paragraph about discrimination, with one sentence saying, ‘In the north, African Americans found themselves forced into segregation,’” said Rothstein. “The textbooks make it seem like one day African Americans looked out their window and found themselves segregated. And that’s not true.”

Further describing the public housing programs role in residential segregation, Rothstein noted that in 1949, the government offered white families the opportunity to leave the housing projects, an opportunity black families were left out of, as explicitly stated in the contracts. “The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), subsidized the movement of white families out of the projects and into single family homes in suburbs such as Levittown, PA” said Rothstein. “No homes were sold to African Americans, and there were clauses prohibiting the resale to black families.” Rothstein said that projects like Levittown, funded with government money, were created all across America, developing suburban neighborhoods African Americans were unequivocally blocked from joining. Over time, this not only meant a loss of jobs in the cities because industries moved near those developments, it also meant a loss of generational wealth from being a home owner. And, in most cases, the federally sponsored mortgages cost less then the rent African Americans were already paying.  

“The most economically disadvantaged children in this country come to school in poor health because of their neighborhood. When you take children like that and concentrate them into specific schools, it's difficult to overcome these disadvantages and achieve higher levels.”—Richard Rothstein

What residential segregation has caused
With an understanding that the public housing programs were the primary cause of residential segregation, Rothstein explained that there are several consequences from the programs, the first being the wealth gap. “African American income is 60% of whites. This happened because African Americans were prohibited from buying homes and couldn’t gain equity over the next generations,” said Rothstein. Aside from the wealth gap, Rothstein attributed the 1930s public housing program to minorities not having access to quality public health, violence in over-crowded areas, and to the achievement gap. “The most economically disadvantaged children in this country come to school in poor health because of their neighborhood. When you take children like that, and concentrate them into specific schools, it's difficult to overcome these disadvantages and achieve higher levels,” said Rothstein. “Low-income children need to sit next to middle-class children in order to have a productive learning environment.” Rothstein also added that the concentration of segregated schools plays a role in the increased violence in these neighborhoods. “Violence between police and young men is caused because the most disadvantaged young men are concentrated into single neighborhoods, with no access to good jobs or transportation to get to these jobs,” he said. “They are left without hope and the ability to participate in schools that aren’t segregated.”

Richard Rothstein
Richard Rothstein

“Violence between police and young men is caused because the most disadvantaged young men are concentrated into single neighborhoods, with no access to good jobs or transportation to get to these jobs.”—Richard Rothstein

How to deconstruct residential segregation 
Emphasizing the need for people to understand history and reconstruct their perceptions, Rothstein participated in a Q&A with the audience. When asked what we can do to deconstruct residential segregation, he made several suggestions, starting with abolishing zoning laws. “Suburbs around the country have zoning laws to maintain their exclusivity both racially and economically,” said Rothstein. “If we abolish these zoning laws, members of disadvantaged communities would be able to construct townhouses and single family homes there.” Rothstein also suggested amending the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program and the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8). “Both of these programs are built in already existing low-income communities, reinforcing the segregation,” he said. “The programs should use the tax credit and vouchers in high-opportunity communities and give low-income families a chance to thrive.” 

To see Rothstein’s complete Book Talk, click here.