The Color of Law (review)

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America 
by Richard Rothstein 
reviewed by Sasha Bley-Vroman

The GI Bill was a White guy thing. Yes, the famous law that gave so many young veterans a good start in life after World War II. Although technically, it was for all veterans, in practice, African-Americans found it impossible to get the promised support. Before long, they stopped applying for it. And that was only the beginning. In his 2017 book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein shows that many housing laws were designed to discriminate against African-Americans. He shows that it was in fact the policy of the federal government to discriminate in housing. And he shows how racial discrimination in housing led to the segregated society we know today; divisions by neighborhood, by financial situation, by profession, and by level of education – all come out of housing discrimination.

Rothstein demonstrates that we do not have de facto segregation in this country, arising from preference, chance, or custom; we have de jure segregation, brought about intentionally by law. What a horrible discovery. And this in spite of legal decisions that housing discrimination is a “badge or incident of slavery” and thus outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment.

This book is probably describing the South, you say? Alas, no. In the first chapter, “If San Francisco, Then Everywhere?” Rothstein shows that Bay Area employers, during the industrial boom of World War II, built their plants in locations far from cities and then built housing for their White employees nearby, but not for the African-Americans. This increased the segregation of neighborhoods, while imposing an uneven burden of commuting. In cases where housing was built for Black tenants, it was of shoddy construction and poor design.

Levittown, the name of three famous suburban housing developments in the 1950s – in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania – provided new housing at modest prices to young families. But this housing was for Whites only, because of government regulation. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) ensured that most public housing should be White only. Not only that, but private projects were forced to discriminate, too, for banks would not approve loans that the FHA would not back, and the FHA would not back any project that permitted African-Americans to buy. Keep in mind that the appreciation of property is one of the main ways Americans gain wealth – but only those who can acquire property to begin with.

Thus, the FHA ensured that new housing was segregated. As for existing housing, many older neighborhoods had been integrated since emancipation; but after World War II, zoning was used to change that. African-American neighborhoods were zoned “industrial,” making them less attractive, more hazardous to health, and lowering the value of the housing there. Eisenhower’s highways were built right through them. Public transportation was designed to connect workplaces to White suburbs, but not to urban areas. Both the increasing wealth gap and FHA rules kept African-Americans from moving to the suburbs, so urban neighborhoods were poorer and also more crowded.

Zoning segregated the schools, and the schools segregated the housing. It is shocking how many cities destroyed their mixed-race neighborhoods by the intentional placement of new schools for one race or the other, driving the target populations to move to the zones planned for them. (Schools were often officially segregated at this stage; neighborhoods were not.)

For details about the examples above – and many more examples – I urge you to read this book. Rothstein writes clearly and forcefully. You will be filled with righteous indignation, and you will also learn a lot about our history. Without that knowledge, we can’t go forward. Rothstein says it is not his intention to propose solutions, but he is willing to offer a few guidelines, and the first is education. Here is a good start on education: Read The Color of Law.  ~~~

Sasha Bley-Vroman has attended Friends meetings since her student days at Antioch College, including thirty-four years at Honolulu Friends Meeting (PacYM), where she is now a member. She has been writing for much longer than that.

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