The Color of Law

The Color of Law


Richard Rothstein

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The Color of Law Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Richard Rothstein's The Color of Law. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Richard Rothstein

Although Richard Rothstein is now best-known for The Color of Law, during most of his lengthy career as a historian Rothstein focused on studying education policy and school segregation. He switched to studying housing discrimination in the 2000s and 2010s after realizing that American schools remain segregated principally because American neighborhoods are so segregated. Earlier in his career, Rothstein taught for several years at Columbia and Harvard Universities, in addition to writing a column on education issues for The New York Times from 1999 to 2002. Rothstein is affiliated with a number of universities, think tanks, and civil rights organizations, including the Economic Policy Institute, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law’s Othering & Belonging Institute (formerly the Haas Institute). He has also received an Honorary Doctorate from the Bank Street College of Education in 2015, and his son Jesse Rothstein is also a professor specializing in education issues.
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Historical Context of The Color of Law

Since it is a work of history, The Color of Law traces its central subject—the history of government-sponsored residential discrimination in the United States—through various iterations, primarily in the 20th century. In the background of Rothstein’s account are important events like the Great Depression, during which Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration began implementing the New Deal programs that both radically improved living conditions for many struggling Americans and set the trend of reserving housing and social services solely for the benefit of white people. Additionally, Rothstein explores how World Wars I and II created an acute labor shortage in the United States and led to government-run manufacturing plants hiring African American workers for the first time, at middle-class wages. But Rothstein also contextualizes 20th-century residential segregation in relation to the broader struggle for African American civil rights in the United States, particularly by looking at how it perpetuated the forms of oppression that came before it—namely, plantation slavery and Jim Crow laws. Notably, Rothstein emphasizes that African Americans have not seen continuous progress since the end of slavery—during Reconstruction (the first decade after the American Civil War) African Americans were represented in Congress and Southern state governments, and American cities were in many cases more integrated than they ever became in the subsequent century and a half. However, the backlash to Reconstruction in 1876 led to a long era of segregation, sharecropping, and white terrorism that kept African Americans politically disenfranchised and disproportionately poor through the mid-20th century. Although the Civil Rights Movement—including the 1968 Fair Housing Act that ended the most egregious forms of de jure housing discrimination—represented huge political and economic strides for many African Americans, not only do the effects of segregation linger, but discriminatory policies continue to proliferate under other guises. Ultimately, American racism has far from disappeared, but rather learned to adapt to the times.

Other Books Related to The Color of Law

Rothstein’s earlier work, including the books Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (2008) and Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black–White Achievement Gap (2004), among others, focus primarily on the causes and effects of educational segregation in the United States. In his bibliography, Rothstein recommends Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), the widely influential study of mass incarceration and the war on drugs, as essential reading for anyone interested in racial justice issues in the 21st-century United States. As essential influences on his work, among others, he cites Robert Weaver’s early work The Negro Ghetto (1948); Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier (1985), which largely concerns home financing discrimination in the American suburbs; and Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid (1993), about the deliberate creation of black ghettos through 20th-century urban planning.
Key Facts about The Color of Law
  • Full Title: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
  • When Written: 2007-2017
  • Where Written: Berkeley, California
  • When Published: 2017
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Nonfiction; American History
  • Setting: The United States
  • Climax: The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits and largely stops de jure residential segregation (though its effects continue to the present day).
  • Antagonist: Government-sponsored de jure segregation
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Color of Law

Double Entendre. The title The Color of Law refers not only to the way that government (the “law”) segregated the United States based on race (“color”), but also the legal concept of “color of law,” which refers to an officer of the law abusing their authority as a representative of the government to illegally deprive people of protected rights. The parallel to Rothstein’s book is clear: the government abused its power to violate the Constitution by segregating African Americans into ghettos.