"The Color of Law"

In a disturbing history of residential segregation in America, Richard Rothstein, an authority on housing policy, brilliantly explodes the commonly held view that America’s cities came to be racially divided because of individual prejudices, income differences, and the “redlining” decisions of private banks and real estate agencies, generally known as “de facto” segregation. Rather, based on his extensive and exceptional research, he demonstrates that the laws and policy decisions of local, state and federal governments that promoted discriminatory patterns—“dejure” segregation—is the true cause.

Rothstein chronicles this previously untold history beginning in the 1920s when “de jure” segregation began with explicit racial zoning as African Americans migrated from the south to metropolitan areas in the north. As the century progressed, he documents how government policies led to the creation of officially segregated public housing and the demolition of integrated neighborhoods.

Many of the book’s examples are drawn from zoning and real estate practices in St. Louis including the fact that half of the 33 buildings constructed in the Pruitt-Igoe housing development were designated for whites only. He also cites the demolition of blocks and blocks of houses on the St. Louis Riverfront to erect the Arch as an example of the way cities have removed whole neighborhoods of African-Americans without offering any kind of relocation assistance, forcing many of the displaced to crowd into existing but now subdivided single-family homes in other segregated neighborhoods.

During the suburbanization of America in the post-World War II years, the federal government provided subsidies to builders who would agree with the condition that none of the houses be sold to African Americans. In 1950, the builder William Levitt transformed Long Island potato fields into a huge housing complex of affordable homes, beginning at $7990. Playgrounds, open spaces and no fences were all touted in the ads, but one item of important information was missing. Homeowners in Levittown were forbidden to rent or sell to persons “other than members of the Caucasian race.”

Rothstein also emphasizes how the police and prosecutors brutally upheld housing standards by allowing violent resistance to black families in white neighborhoods. For example, in the early 1950s, an African-American veteran bought a home in a large Philadelphia subdivision in order for his children to have access to a good school district. A white mob formed and pelted his house with rocks and crosses were burned on the lawn. Despite requests, police and public officials failed to protect the family from unlawful intimidation.

After four years of dealing with racial hatred, the family moved out. The author purports that recent outbursts of violence in Baltimore, Ferguson and Minneapolis are outgrowths of these earlier eras of government initiated housing policies and the attitudes of racially biased police and public officials. He writes, “We have created a caste system in this country, with African-Americans exploited and geographically separated by racially explicit government policies. Although most of these policies are now off the books, they have never been remedied and their effects endure.”

One of the great strengths of Rothstein’s book is the plethora of examples of de jure segregation. He provides overwhelming evidence of how government at every level played a major role in creating the racial ghettos that continue to plague our suburbs and inner cities. “The Color of Law” is a disturbing and infuriating read. It is another in a series of current books calling for a revision of public accounts of American history to reflect the endemic social injustices of our past, especially toward women and minorities.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate at The Economic Policy Institute and a Fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Liverlight is the publisher; 217 pages of narrative; 125 pages of notes, reference material and indices.