In The Color of Law, historian Richard Rothstein notes that every single American city is segregated on racial lines and argues that this segregation is de jure rather than de facto: it is the deliberate product of “systemic and forceful” government action, and so the government has a “constitutional as well as a moral obligation” to remedy it. Planned and implemented by all levels of American government, residential racial segregation impoverishes and disempowers African Americans by confining them to ghettos and blocking them out of homeownership. And this segregation continues well into the 21st century. Since residential segregation pertains to where and how people live their lives, the issue is harder to undo than injustices like the deprivation of voting rights, public services, and equal legal protection to African Americans. To make matters worse, governments, financial institutions, and the real estate industry continue to actively segregate American cities, to African Americans’ disadvantage. Throughout The Color of Law, Rothstein traces the history of this phenomenon in the 20th century and explains what the American citizenry and government must do in this century to remedy it.
In Chapter One, Rothstein illustrates the problem of de jure segregation with the representative story of Frank Stevenson, an African American man living in Richmond, California in the mid-20th century. A former manufacturing town, Richmond grew rapidly during World War II. To keep up with demand, the government built public housing—for white people, it built a comfortable suburb called Rollingwood, but black working families were crowded into “poorly constructed” apartments in industrial neighborhoods, or even left to live on the street. Stevenson worked at a Ford Motor factory, which was soon relocated an hour away to Milpitas after the war. Stevenson was out of luck, because it was impossible for black people to live in Milpitas: Federal Housing Administration (FHA) funds were only allocated to all-white neighborhoods, so while housing options multiplied for white people in places like Milpitas, nobody built housing for African Americans. African Americans were thus confined to certain neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods consequently became entirely African American over time. The government subsequently withdrew services from those black neighborhoods, turning them into the “slum[s]” that they remain today.
Rothstein next dedicates one chapter to each strategy the government has used to segregate America over time. In Chapter Two, he looks at public housing, which the government began constructing on a large scale during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Under these social programs of the 1930s, the government only constructed segregated housing, and only built white housing in white neighborhoods (and vice versa). All across the United States, federal housing programs specifically targeted integrated neighborhoods for demolition and built segregated projects where they used to stand. From the 1950s onwards, as white residents progressively “depart[ed] for the suburbs”—aided by federal mortgage protections exclusively for them—African American became the primary residents of public housing, and now nearly all new public housing is built in predominantly black neighborhoods.
In Chapter Three, Rothstein shows how zoning laws have been used to segregate American cities block-by-block. In the 1910s, cities invented a wide variety of clever laws to prevent white families from buying on majority-African American blocks, and vice versa. Although the Supreme Court outlawed this practice in 1917, cities continued doing it for more than half a century through more underhanded tactics like banning the construction of apartment buildings in white neighborhoods and zoning African American neighborhoods for “industrial” development (or even “toxic waste”).
In Chapter Four, Rothstein explains how government prevented well-off African Americans from moving into white suburbs. Like public housing, homeownership first became truly accessible through the New Deal. Roosevelt’s government began issuing a new kind of loan that was affordable for middle-class Americans, which gradually turned homeownership into a stepping-stone to the middle class—but only for white people. Roosevelt’s administration redlined African American neighborhoods, refusing to issue loans or insure bank mortgages to anyone who lived there.
But Rothstein notes that loan restrictions were not the only factor keeping middle-class African Americans out of the suburbs: in Chapter Five, he recounts the history of “restrictive covenants,” contractual clauses that prohibited a property from being sold to nonwhite people. Builders, homeowners, and homeowners’ associations used these clauses to keep neighborhood segregated, with the full support of the Federal Housing Administration. In fact, the FHA continued promoting such covenants even after the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1948.
In Chapter Six, Rothstein looks at the actual justification for all this policy: the idea that African Americans moving into a neighborhood “would cause the value of the white-owned properties [there] to decline.” Not only is there no evidence for this claim, but all studies actually point to its opposite: because of segregation and discrimination, African Americans have always had to pay more than white people for the same housing, and they actually increase property values when they move into a neighborhood. In fact, this fact is what allowed the shady practice of blockbusting to thrive: real estate agents scared white homeowners with racist threats of “Negro invasion,” bought white people’s homes for low prices, and then sold the same homes for higher prices to African Americans, often on the predatory contract sale system.
In Chapter Seven, Rothstein explains how the tax system enforces segregation: for a century, the IRS has gladly awarded tax-exempt status to segregationist churches and universities, as well as refused to stop racist practices by banks and insurance companies. This continues into the 21st century: the extension of predatory subprime loans to poor Americans was the principal cause behind the 2008 economic collapse, and government investigations have shown that banks specifically targeted black buyers.
In Chapter Eight, Rothstein shows how local governments can stop integration. He returns to Milpitas, California, where a group spent several years struggling to build an integrated suburb for Ford Motor employees in the 1950s. The “delays, legal fees, and financing problems” the suburb faced from landowners, rival builders, and the local government made it prohibitively expensive. This story is common: U.S. local governments have long used “extraordinary creativity” to exclude African Americans. Historically, local governments have rezoned proposed black neighborhoods as parks, built freeways through them, or (in segregated Southern states) shut down all public services for black people in all but a small part of town.
In Chapter Nine, Rothstein looks at the role of “state-sanctioned violence” in campaigns to prevent integration. From the 1950s through the 1980s, it was not uncommon for mobs of angry white people to camp out on the lawns of black people who moved into their neighborhoods. Numerous black families’ houses were burned down, and the police always either supported the mobs or ignored the victims’ petitions for protection. In many cases, black homeowners were themselves arrested and punished.
In Chapter Ten, Rothstein explains why many black people simply cannot afford to move to white neighborhoods. This, too, is a result of policy: for instance, the government prevented African Americans from accessing employment in the decades after slavery, excluded them from New Deal and post-World War II work programs, and failed to enforce nondiscrimination laws against racist companies and labor unions. Local governments systematically overtax African American communities, who often pay several times what they legally should in property taxes. And housing has always been overpriced in African American ghettos: throughout the 20th century, landlords knew black tenants would pay several times more in rent, compared to white tenants.
In Chapter Eleven, Rothstein asks what it would take to address housing segregation in the present day, which will be a difficult feat because it “requires undoing past actions.” While the 1968 Fair Housing Act removed all legal barriers to integration, the United States remains just as segregated as before, and moving into the middle class remains exceedingly difficult, especially for African Americans. A few additional factors exacerbate this problem: property appreciates more rapidly in white neighborhoods, and most white families bought their first homes before 1973, when wages for most Americans stopped growing. Now, new public housing continues to be built in what are already the poorest and most segregated neighborhoods, and government programs like Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers only exacerbate these neighborhoods’ isolation, rather than funding residents’ integration into middle-class areas.
In Chapter Twelve, Rothstein asks what can be done about residential segregation now. While most Americans are too cowardly or cynical to face history, he argues, it is still possible to push for more integration. He points out easy fixes, like rewriting misleading textbooks and actually enforcing the Fair Housing Act. Then, he offers some concrete policy proposals: the government could sell African Americans homes at lower prices that reflect what they lost out on because of segregation, encourage real estate agents to help integrate neighborhoods, limit localities’ zoning powers, and suspend tax incentives for all-white neighborhoods in order to persuade them to integrate. In fact, some cities have already improved public housing voucher programs on a smaller scale and reaped the benefits of integration in select neighborhoods.
In the Epilogue, Rothstein points out that even the Supreme Court has disastrously misinterpreted American history and declared residential segregation “a product not of state action but of private choices.” This “comfortable delusion,” he concludes, is no longer sustainable, and he summarizes all the profound harms caused by the government’s active segregation of the U.S.