The Color of Law: a hidden history of racist legislation

Visiting lecturer Richard Rothstein gives talk on the largely-forgotten history of racism in federal housing programs.

In his book “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” Richard Rothstein examines the history of segregation in American housing practices. As he terms it, “We need to look at the history of racism concealed in federal zoning laws.”
The 20th century saw desegregation in many places. It first began in law schools, eventually spreading to whole universities, public places, grade schools and work sites. Yet, as Rothstein pointed out, “Every major metropolitan area in America is segregated in some way. And we do nothing about it.”
Why? “Because the issue is hard to to fix and analyze. So we rationalize the current situation as the norm,” Rothstein told the large audience that had packed into Lorton to see him.
“We take residential segregation as de facto, simply a result of personal and informal practices,” he explained. In fact, the Supreme Court said as much in a 2007 case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1.
School districts in both Seattle and Louisville had attempted to integrate districts, hoping to thwart the large racial divides the cities had. The Supreme Court struck down their integration efforts because of not “being sufficiently narrowly tailored.”
However, as Rothstein noted, “the segregation in American housing is actually de jure [by law].” Government policies are the reason for segregation in many American cities.
Rothstein explained that the Public Works Administration, during the Great Depression, built segregated public housing projects for white and black workers. World War II increased the need for projects as many black workers moved to new places t for factory jobs.
The 1949 Housing Act passed by Congress allowed for construction of even more segregated public housing projects. Eventually, white citizens began leaving cities in the white flight wave of the 1950s and 60s. Black housing projects had long waiting lists while white housing projects stood deserted and vacant.
These black workers eventually moved into the white housing projects as well. Then jobs left cities and the projects became the “vertical slums” we know today.
Mass-produced suburbs like Levittown enticed white people to leave urban areas by using government subsidized mortgages. These mortgages were cheaper than paying rent to live in a housing project. And since the Federal Housing Authority subsidized the programs, only whites received such cheap loans.
This process helped set the wealth gap between white and black people in America today. These houses in the suburbs, owned by white people, appreciated in value and allowed white people to afford better lives while the projects of the inner cities kept blacks trapped.
Real estate licensing companies had strict racist guidelines. A realtor’s license could be revoked if one sold a black family a house in a white neighborhood.
Then there’s the policy of red-lining. City planners would zone blocks on city maps where only black people could reside. Businesses either never went near those areas or were not allowed near them because of zoning codes.
As Rothstein put it, “The most serious social problems in our society today are due to systematic residential segregation,” adding that integrated school districts set kids up for greater success.
He summarized, “Gang problems, police confrontations, bad school districts that fail students … all of these happen in areas of towns that are predominantly populated by minorities.
“It could have been a whole different story,” Rothstein concluded. “If the next generation does not learn about this issue and work to change it, they will be as set up to fail as the current one. Residential segregation is not de facto, it’s de jure. But it does not have to be this way.”
Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a Fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. His most recent book is “The Color of Law,” available now.

Post Author: Alex Garoffolo