Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

In the 20th Century, says Richard Rothstein, “we made a national decision that racial segregation was wrong.” Thanks to the tireless work of civil rights activists, the US saw the gradual integration of universities, buses, movie theaters, and lunch counters — and, of course, our public schools, particularly following the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. It's now widely accepted that the era of de jure (or legally-codified) segregation ended long ago. Or did it?

Not so, says Rothstein in his 2017 tour de force The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. A packed crowd gathered at DC’s Calvary Baptist Church on Monday evening to hear a lecture from Rothstein and subsequent discussion on the history and present reality of segregation in America. In fact, it was not merely the individual actions of some racist citizens, but also a slew of systemic actions by the US government that created and maintained racial segregation and disenfranchisement.

The federal (as well as state and local) government's explicit role in building and enforcing segregation has been largely obscured, and it has done comparatively little to rectify the harm it's caused to African-American communities — harm which deeply resonates into the present day.

Image by the author.

De facto or de jure?

A scholar of education policy at the Economic Policy Institute, Rothstein first delved into housing discrimination in response to the 2007 Supreme Court case known as Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. The case involved programs in school districts in Seattle, WA and Louisville, KY to alter — slightly, Rothstein emphasized — the racial makeup of certain schools to combat the legacy of segregation.

The Court ruled, in a contested 4-1-4 decision, that such programs were unconstitutional. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his concurring opinion, "The cases here were argued upon the assumption, and come to us on the premise, that the discrimination in question did not result from de jure actions." (Emphasis mine.)

This struck Rothstein as a very strange assumption. After all, if public school districts are segregated because their constituent neighborhoods are segregated, and the government played a heavy role in segregating cities and neighborhoods, how could the government not have a responsibility to remedy the effects of that segregation?

Thus the project that would become The Color of Law was born: laying out, in painstaking detail, all of the government actions that segregated everything from individual housing projects to entire suburbs, even physically destroying established African-American neighborhoods.

Richard Rothstein speaking at Calvary Baptist Church.

Segregation was — and is — a public policy choice

Dating at least to the Woodrow Wilson administration, federal government officials made the large-scale resettlement of white Americans into segregated suburbs a central tenet of housing policy. To choose just a few examples that Rothstein highlighted for the audience:

  • In the 1930s as part of the New Deal, the Public Works Administration addressed the shortage of private housing construction by building new housing projects in metropolitan areas across the country. In many cases — like the Fairfax area of Cleveland, where poet Langston Hughes spent part of his childhood — integrated neighborhoods were razed to make way for segregated projects.
  • In the 1940s, as large-scale manufacturing facilities for WWII armaments were mobilized, the federal government again took a prominent role in building housing, which again was required to be segregated regardless of local wishes. Segregated living patterns originating in this era can still be seen in full effect today in places like Richmond, CA.
  • Across several decades, federal involvement in the mortgage market instituted and codified residential segregation.
    • The Federal Housing Agency would offer a mortgage insurance guarantee — a critical piece of financing — for segregated projects. Entire suburbs like Levittown, NY, were financed in part by the FHA and thus ensured to be reserved for white buyers only. (Today, the population of Levittown is less than 1 percent black, despite a broader metropolitan area population that is 15 percent black.)
    • The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, another New Deal agency, either drew or supported the infamous “red lines” that defined where banks would and would not issue mortgages.
  • Among other non-housing decisions, the Interstate Highway System was designed in such a way as to tear down predominantly African-American urban neighborhoods to allow for easy downtown access for whites commuting from the suburbs. Of course, even African-Americans who had the means were prohibited from securing mortgages to move to those suburbs.

So what can we do about it?

The sum of these actions and many others calcified a racist structure that has had profound impacts on housing, schooling, and income inequality that persist to this day. Today, African-Americans overall earn about 60 percent of the income of white Americans, yet the total of African-American wealth is only 10 percent of whites’. Much of this can be directly traced to being locked out of building intergenerational wealth through suburban housing that was planned, subsidized, and segregated by the government.

In the audience Q&A portion, participants raised a wide range of topics related to the themes in Rothstein’s book, including zoning, homelessness, evictions, and protests. Over and over, a central question emerged: what can we do?

Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

Rothstein doesn’t claim to have all the answers. His primary motive with the book is to teach what he sees as a crucial piece of real history that has been whitewashed and ignored in schools. He implored the audience to start discussions in their local schools about what is being taught, in order to help the next generation grow up with a deeper understanding of the legacy of segregation that pervades our lives.

However, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t change the status quo. Rothstein is a forceful proponent of using zoning as a tool of integration. He supports policies that would punish areas that remain segregated while rewarding those that integrate, such as:

  • Reform housing assistance programs like Section 8 vouchers and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to foster more affordable housing in high-opportunity, segregated areas;
  • Withhold the mortgage interest deduction from areas that refuse to integrate; and
  • Encourage colleges to place more value on students from integrated schools

Most of the issues Greater Greater Washington covers are directly related to the history of segregation Rothstein describes. Today, in our region as in most others, racial minorities and those with low or moderate incomes are locked out of high-opportunity areas by a host of practices, from exclusionary zoning to substandard public transportation.

These are avenues where progress is within reach. For example, our own David Whitehead and countless other local advocates are working hard to make positive amendments to the DC Comprehensive Plan, which for years has prevented development in wealthy, politically-connected, “stable” neighborhoods.

Undoing decades of segregationist policies will take time, but consciousness of the problem is growing. What else can we be doing as individuals, as a community, and as a society?