The Color of Law - Richard Rothstein: An Incredible, Incredible Book

Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America is simply an incredible book!   The systemic nature of our governments’ creation of segregated housing and how it has hurt Black People is clearly shown by numerous examples which humanizes the hurt that continues to limit many people today.

Direct quotes from the book are very helpful in showing what the book teaches us.

(1959) In the Missouri case, an African American couple had attempted to build a home in the white St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur.  Again, permits had been approved and work had begun when the town discovered  that the purchasers were African American.  A hastily organized citizens committee then raised contributions to purchase the property. … As in the Hansberry drama, the Creve Coeur couple refused the offer.   The city then condemned the property for recreational use.

  • P.125 

In 1969, a Methodist church-sponsored nonprofit organization proposed to construct a federally subsidized, racially integrated complex for moderate- and low-income families in Black Jack, an all-white suburb in unincorporated St. Louis County.   In response, voters in Black Jack incorporated their community and adopted a zoning ordinance that prohibited future developments of more than three homes per acre.  … Eventually it did, and a federal appeals court ordered Black Jack to permit the pro-integration group to proceed. .... The uncontradicted evidence indicated that at all levels of opposition, race played a significant role, both in the drive to incorporate and the decision to rezone. … The Methodist organization, however, did not win its legal victory until 1974… .   By then, financing was no longer available, interest rates had climbed, and the federal government had become less supportive of subsidized integrated housing.   … ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ was the frequent experience of African Americans having to fight legal battles to obtain housing in white neighborhoods.


Four years earlier, though, the Supreme Court had ruled that covenants (restrictive covenants that required that purchasers/residents be “Caucasian”) were not enforceable, so Hogan sold his property to Wilbur Gary and his wife.  … Soon after the Garys arrived, a mob of about 300 whites gathered outside their house, shouting epithets, hurling bricks (one crashed through the front window), and burning a cross on the lawn.  For several days, police and county sheriff deputies refused to step in, so the NAACP found it necessary to organize its own guards.

  • p. 139-140

Built post Shelley (Supreme Court decision that stated that restrictive covenants were not enforceable), the Pennsylvania project did not have restrictive covenants, but the FHA continued to support Levitt and other developers only if they refused to sell to African Americans.

-p. 140 

The attacks on African American pioneers, sanctioned by elected officials and law enforcement officers, could not have been attributable to whites discomfort with a lower social class of neighbors.  Wilbur and Borece Gary and Bill and Daisy Myers were solidly middle class.  Because more affluent communities were closed to them, the African Americans who were victimized by such mob action often had higher occupational and social status than the white neighbors who assaulted them.   This circumstance belies the oft-repeated claim that resistance to integration has been based on fears of deteriorating neighborhood quality.


In 1948, for example, Levittown Homes sold for about $8,000, or about $75,000 in today’s dollars.  Now properties in Levittown without major remodelling (i.e, one-bath houses) sell for $350,000 and up.   White working-class families who bought these homes in 1948 have gained, over three generations, more than $200,000 in wealth.

Most African American families - who were denied the opportunity to guy into Levittown or into the thousands of subdivisions like it across the country - remained renters, often in depressed neighborhoods, and gained no equity. … Vince Mereday, who helped build Levittown but was prohibited from living there, bought a home in the nearby, almost all-black suburb of Lakeview.  It remains 74 percent African American today.   .... Although white suburban borrowers could obtain VA mortgages with no down payments, Vince Mereday could not because he was African American.  He would have had to make a down payment, probably about 20 percent, or $15,000.

One-bath homes in Lakeview currently sell for $90,000 to $120,000.   At most, the Mereday family gained $45,000 in equity appreciation over three generations, perhaps 20 percent of the wealth gained by white veterans in Levittown.   Making matters worse, it was lower-middle class African American communities like Lakeview that mortgage brokers targeted for subprime lending during the pre-2008 housing bubble, leaving many more African American families subject to default and foreclosures than economically similar white families.


Patrick Sharkey, a New York University sociologist, analyzed data on race and neighborhood conditions and reported his findings in a 2013 book, Stuck in Place.  … He finds that young African Americans (from thirteen to twenty-eight years old) are now ten times as likely to live in poor neighborhoods as young whites - 66 percent of African Americans, compared to 6 percent of whites.  He finds that 67 percent of African American families hailing from the poorest quarter of neighborhoods a generation ago continue to live in such neighborhoods today.  But only 40  percent of white families who lived in the poorest quarter of neighborhoods a generation ago still do so.


There was nothing unwritten about government policy to promote segregation in the North   It was spelled out in the FHA’s “Underwriting Manual”, in the PWA’ s (and subsequent agencies’) racial designation of housing projects, in congressional votes on the 1949 public housing integration  amendment, and in written directives of federal and state officials.


I’ll suggest a few, first some that could not be enacted in today’s political environment…  

We might contemplate a remedy like this: Considering that African Americans comprise about 15 percent of the population of the New York metropolitan area, 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).  It should 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.  If Congress established such a program and justified it based on the history of “de jure” segregation, courts should uphold it as appropriate.


In the twentieth century, federal, state, and local officials did not resist major opinion with regard to race.  Instead, they endorsed and reinforced it, actively and aggressively.

If government had declined to build racial separate public housing in cities where segregation hadn’t previously taken root, and instead had scattered integrated developments throughout the community, those cities might have developed in a less racially toxic fashion, with fewer desperate ghettos and more diverse suburbs.

If the federal government had not urged suburbs to adopt exclusionary zoning laws, white flight would have been minimized because there would have been fewer racially exclusive suburbs to which frightened homeowners could flee.

If the government had told developers that they could have FHA guarantees only if the homes built were open to all, integrated working- class suburbs would likely have matured with both African Americans and whites sharing the benefits.

If state courts had not blessed private discrimination by ordering the eviction of African American homeowners in neighborhoods where association rules and restrictive covenants  barred their residence, middle-class African Americans would have been able to gradually  integrate previously white communities as they developed the financial means to do so.

If churches, universities and hospitals had faced loss of tax-exempt status for their promotion of restrictive covenants, they most likely would have refrained from such activity.

If police had arrested, rather than encouraged, leaders of mob violence when African Americans moved into previously white neighborhoods, racial transitions would have been smoother.

If state real estate commissions had denied licenses to brokers who claimed an “ethical” obligation to impose segregation" , those brokers might have guided the evolution of interracial neighborhoods.

If school boards had not placed schools and drawn attendance boundaries to ensure the separation of black and white pupils, families might not have had to relocate to have access to education for their children.

If federal and state highway planners had not used urban interstates to demolish African American neighborhoods and force their residents deeper into urban ghettos, black impoverishment would have lessoned, and some displaced families might have accumulated the resources to improve their housing and its location.

If government had given African Americans the same labor-market rights that other citizens enjoyed, African American working-class families would not have been trapped in lower-income minority communities, from lack of funds to live elsewhere.

If the federal government had not exploited the racial boundaries it had created in metropolitan areas, by spending billions on tax breaks for single-family suburban homeowners, while failing to spend adequate funds on transportation networks that could bring African Americans to job opportunities, the inequality on which segregation feeds would have diminished.

If federal programs were not, even to this day, reinforcing racial isolation by disproportionately directing low-income African Americans who receive housing assistance into the segregated neighborhoods that government had previously established, we might see many more inclusive communities.

Undoing the effects of “dejure” segregation will be incomparably difficult.  To make a start, we will first have to contemplate what we have collectively done and, on behalf of our government, accept responsibility.


In his book “For Discrimination”, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy ridicules Barack Obama’s claim in “The Audacity of Hope” that affirmative action “can open up opportunities otherwise closed to qualified minorities without diminishing opportunities for white students.”   Kennedy retorts, “How can that be?”  if college slots are limited and affirmative action amidst a handful of African Americans who wouldn’t otherwise attend, an equal number of nonfavored applicants must be rejected.  That number may be small relative to the thousands of qualified applicants denied admission because of space limitations, but it is not zero.

By not acknowledging this cost, we invite opponents of affirmative action to exaggerate it, wildly in some cases, as they did in recent Supreme Court challenges to University of Texas admission procedures that give a tiny advantage to otherwise qualified African Americans.  The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, was a white applicant who was less qualified than African Americans  who were admitted.  By failing to acknowledge that a few whites might have to give up their places in an affirmative action program, we encourage any white students rejected by an elite university to feel victimized and to blame affirmative action for his or her failure.


I prefer the term “remedies” to “reparations” to describe policies that could make African Americans, and all Americans, whole for the constitutional violations that segregated the nation.


Rothstein completely demolishes the premises that many white people make about racism and its effects being a thing of the past.   He also shreds the myth  that simple “equality” laws and regulations can and/or will undo the historical injustices of the past.

Rothstein confronts our tendences, as white Americans, to talk a little, but essentially do nothing to end (racist) segregation and related inequality.  He shows how our failure to affirmatively work towards positive change, allows inequality to continue to punish Black Americans and help us white people.  Rothstein makes very clear that ending the racism is not simply a zero sum game.   We can not change things, allowing Black People to have equality, without ending preferences that we continue to get as white people.   

Myths that justified racist policies are confronted with many examples.   One simple one was that when middle-class African Americans attempted to move into white (only) areas, they commonly were of higher socio-economic status than most white residents in those neighborhoods.   They were not, as was commonly stated, going to “bring down” the neighborhood.

Examples alone can not fully explain the totality and clarity of the message that Rothstein ably brings to the reader.   He uses countless real examples to make his points.  His examples clearly are not “cherry picked”, but represent far more real situations that Black People faced, and unfortunately still face today.

I highly recommend reading this book!!!



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