A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
By Richard Rothstein
Find it on Bookshop
If you don’t believe that government and community housing policies can be racist, you need to read The Color of Law. Richard Rothstein lays out how African Americans were intentionally and systematically excluded from nicer suburban neighborhoods in the mid-twentieth century. They were driven into de jure segregated ghettos. The impacts from those efforts are still visible today.
We means all of us, the American community. This is not a book about whites as actors and blacks as victims. As citizens in this democracy, we—all of us, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and others—bear a collective responsibility to enforce our Constitution and to rectify past violations whose effects endure. Few of us may be the direct descendants of those who perpetuated a segregated system or those who were its most exploited victims. African Americans cannot await rectification of past wrongs as a gift, and white Americans collectively do not owe it to African Americans to rectify them. We, all of us, owe this to ourselves. As American citizens, whatever routes we or our particular ancestors took to get to this point, we’re all in this together now.
I’ve chosen some select chapters to summarize in detail. This is not an exhaustive summary of discriminatory policies.
Public Housing, Black Ghettos
Public housing’s original purpose was to give shelter not to those too poor to afford it but to those who could afford decent housing but couldn’t find it because none was available.
African Americans, unwanted in middle-class white neighborhoods, were forced to live in public housing simply because they had no other option. It gave them a place to live, yes, but came with drawbacks. Public housing removed them from mainstream society and distanced them from social programs, jobs, and adequate policing. There were other disadvantages in these communities, such as frequently being located near industrial and toxic waste facilities (confirmed by the Environmental Protection Agency and affiliated researchers).
“Own Your Own Home”
The government began to persuade white families to move to suburban homes, leaving black families behind in urban apartments. The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration created the Federal Housing Authority in 1934 to assist middle class renters in purchasing homes. Their appraisal standards required whites only, because they deemed racially mixed neighborhoods too risky for insurance (this is redlining, the literal color of law). This practice only stopped in 1962 when John F. Kennedy prohibited federal funds from being used for racial discrimination.
The insidious discriminatory strategies so far have been subtle, but some were much more blatant. Sometimes, community groups resorted to outright violence against African Americans living in neighborhoods where they were unwanted.
The Myers family, who were black, moved into a home in a white suburban neighborhood in 1957. They were only able to purchase their home because a New York City philanthropist gave them a private mortgage. When a postal worker noticed he was delivering mail to African Americans, he shouted the news to the neighbors as he completed his rounds. A group of 600 white people showed up to throw rocks at the house, burn crosses, and vandalize the homes of the family’s supporters. This carried on for two months while law enforcement watched.
You could argue that these cops were biased, bad actors within the government. But taking a larger look at the system, it is unlikely that their supervisors were unaware of what was going on. If supervisors knew and encouraged or did not properly restrict these actions, these actions transform into discriminatory state policy.
Did the next generation imbibe a fear of integration from their parents? How long do the memories of such events last? How long do they continue to intimidate?
Some people explain away segregation because African Americans cannot afford to live in middle-class neighborhoods. This is ostensibly true, but ignores how government policies kept black incomes low for decades, cementing and reinforcing economic differences. Home assessors extracted unfairly high taxes from black families by overvaluing homes in black neighborhoods while undervaluing homes in white neighborhoods.
Even small differences in income compound over the years. The difference between being able to save some money and not being able to save any, even with stable employment, affects financial security. Over generations, this difference expands to the magnitude of down payments on homes and other assets, which become inherited wealth. It is very uncommon for a child born into a poor family to overcome that disadvantage and make enough money to change their socioeconomic status.
When this book was published in 2017, median white family income was ~$60,000 and median black family income was ~$37,000 (about 60% the value). But when you look at total household wealth, median white household wealth was $134,000 and median black household wealth was $11,000– less than 10% as much! These huge wealth disparities accumulated after many years of inequality.
The consequences of being exposed to neighborhood poverty are greater than the consequences of being poor itself… [Children] have few, if any, summer job opportunities. Libraries and bookstores are less accessible. There are fewer primary care physicians. Fresh food is harder to get.… All these challenges are added to those from which poor children suffer in any neighborhood—instability and stress resulting from parental unemployment, fewer literacy experiences when parents are poorly educated, more overcrowded living arrangements that offer few quiet corners to study, and less adequate health care, all of which contribute to worse average school performance and, as a result, less occupational success as adults.
For decades, different levels of government in America forced segregation in residential neighborhoods through racist policies. These include:
- public housing as a last resort
- assistance for white families to purchase a home
- outright violence
- chronic suppression of income
Going forward, advocates and housing programs need to decide which paths to take to make housing more equitable. These decisions will not be easy. For example, developing current ghettos reduces overcrowding but reinforces segregation, which is arguably more harmful.
The first step, no matter the ultimate fix, is for citizens to acknowledge the history of housing segregation in America. Federal, state, and local governments that discriminated against black families and neighborhoods could then consider similarly strong opposing policies to desegregate.
By reading The Color of Law, you’re taking an important step.
When we become Americans, we accept not only citizenship’s privileges that we did not earn but also its responsibilities to correct wrongs that we did not commit. It was our government that segregated American neighborhoods, whether we or our ancestors bore witness to it, and it is our government that now must craft remedies.
Want to read more? Find The Color of Law here: Bookshop
The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂
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The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman