The Chronicle Review

How the Government Segregated America

Paul Sequeira, Getty Images

Young women on their way to school watch an eviction in Chicago in 1970, with the police standing guard.
July 30, 2017

During World War II, 19-year-old Frank Stevenson migrated from New Orleans, La., to Richmond, Calif., where he secured work at a Ford plant. Unable to find a place to live in the city’s segregated housing projects, he settled in North Richmond, an unincorporated area with limited services. After the war, Ford relocated 50 miles south to Milpitas. The town quickly banned apartment-building construction. To develop new single-family homes there, builders relied on Federal Housing Administration mortgage guarantees — a requirement of which was "an openly stated prohibition on sales to African-Americans," writes Richard Rothstein in his new book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. So Stevenson remained in the declining city, "bought a van, recruited eight others to share the costs, and made the drive daily for the next 20 years until he retired."

The circumstances Stevenson faced were not uncommon for African-Americans in the 20th century. For him and many others, access to homeownership was a dream not easily attained. Even when African-Americans did manage to buy their own homes, their choices were often circumscribed to segregated neighborhoods. Over time, unequal investments isolated these neighborhoods, poor schools diminished their appeal, and property values increased more slowly than in white areas. Thus African-Americans incurred at least a double loss: limited housing options in the near term, and the inability to benefit from increased home equity in the future.

Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, uncovers scores of such stories in his sobering and important book. While some may attribute unequal outcomes in housing to cultural preferences or private actors, Rothstein places responsibility squarely on the state. Whether explicitly — through incentivization and enforcement — or passively — by failing to oppose injustice on the ground — government created a segregated America. In judicial parlance, this segregation was not de facto, but de jure. This legal angle is key to Rothstein’s point. Because such practices resulted from state-sponsored action, he argues, government has a constitutional and moral obligation to remedy those wrongs.

The Color of Law is essentially an extended essay elaborating on this core argument in numerous housing-related domains. Even after the Supreme Court found racially exclusive city ordinances unconstitutional in Buchanan v. Warley (1917), courts in subsequent rulings affirmed the legality of privately established restrictive covenants. During the New Deal, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation "redlined" minority neighborhoods as too risky for investment. At midcentury, the FHA and Veterans Administration would insure mortgages only for racially exclusive housing. Government also built racially segregated public housing in cities, thereby isolating communities, and encouraged exclusive zoning laws in suburbs, spurring white flight.


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


 Rothstein also shows how less-direct measures perpetuated segregation. State real-estate commissions licensed brokers who stimulated segregation. Too often, the police failed to stop the violence that met the arrival of African-Americans who broke the color line. School boards located schools and district boundaries to group students by race, encouraging the dissolution of integrated neighborhoods. Highway planners routed interstates through African-American communities, displacing residents. Government also excluded African-American workers from labor protections, thus consigning them to lower-paying jobs that kept home purchases out of reach.

Not that there hasn’t been progress. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 provided a valuable enforcement mechanism against discrimination. But the consequences of long-ago injustices are still being felt. Federal housing programs continue to direct low-income African-Americans into segregated neighborhoods. Households that were deprived of the mortgage-interest deductions and equity accumulation afforded by home-ownership are now often priced out of this possibility. The intergenerational obstacles to escaping poverty and realizing wealth creation are substantial.

Urban historians and sociologists have long been studying the inequalities of race and space. The foundational scholarship of Arnold Hirsch, Thomas Sugrue, and Kenneth Jackson, and much more recent work, undergirds the book’s arguments.

Rothstein’s primary contributions are to mine and connect this substantial literature, situate it within a legal frame, and popularize it to a broader readership who may have forgotten this history — or, more likely, probably never knew its full extent to begin with. In this way, Rothstein provides a housing complement to the work of journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates. He offers clear elucidation of complicated real-estate practices that trapped African-Americans in dangerous financial straits: redlining, contract sales, blockbusting (the practice of scaring white owners into selling cheaply as other races enter a neighborhood), and subprime loans, among others.

Yet even scholars familiar with this field will find Rothstein’s work illuminating for its breadth of inquiry, and inspiring for its passion. Recent events in places like Ferguson, Mo., combined with the rise of Black Lives Matter, only heighten the urgency.

An especially insidious problem, residential segregation cannot be righted with a single law. All the same, Rothstein argues, only government can and, indeed, must solve the problem it has created. He concludes the book with some proposals. Most boldly, Rothstein suggests that "the federal government should purchase the next 15 percent of houses that come up for sale in Levittown at today’s market rates (approximately $350,000)" and then "resell the properties to qualified African-Americans for $75,000, the price (in today’s dollars) that their grandparents would have paid if permitted to do so. The government should enact this program in every suburban development whose construction complied with the FHA’s discriminatory requirements." More modest ideas include banning exclusionary zoning (such as prohibitions on multifamily housing), strengthening the Section 8 program that subsidizes rents for poor families, and updating history textbooks to make the extent of de jure segregation clear.

Rothstein’s book is an infuriating read — but it should galvanize us in the present. Although Rothstein does not really delve into them, there have been some successful efforts to combat housing segregation. For example, the developer Morris Milgram integrated several suburban neighborhoods during the 1950s and ’60s. The 50-acre community of Concord Park, which he built outside Philadelphia, proved a direct competitor to nearby Levittown, Pa.

Such efforts may be limited in scope and duration, and their exceptionalism only proves Rothstein’s point. But they also demonstrate paradigms for others to follow. And they suggest the enduring agency of residents and builders, in the face of an indifferent, even hostile, government.

Francesca Russello Ammon is an assistant professor of city and regional planning and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape (Yale University Press, 2016).