Book Review: The Color of Law

August 29, 2019

Years ago, I don’t remember exactly when, I learned about redlining, disinvestment in America’s cities, and how African American families were denied the opportunities given to white families to buy homes in new suburban neighborhoods throughout the early to mid 20th century. But I thought these racist practices were pursued by individual banks and maybe local governments; I didn’t think much about the widely-heard statement that de facto segregation (that is, individual or socially-enforced segregation, not government-enforced segregation) was the common practice during the Jim Crow era (1870s-1960s).

But it turns out I was wrong, as historian Richard Rothstein persuasively argues in The Color of Law (2017), and it was actually de jure, government-sponsored and enforced, segregation that afflicted American cities across the country. It was not just the racism of specific banks or bankers that created redlining and white flight, but government policies, at the federal, state, and local level, that gutted our cities, segregated our neighbors, and denied African Americans their equal rights to housing, education, and future success. De jure segregation, although unconstitutional under the 13th Amendment and illegal under the 1866 Civil Rights Act, was practiced by the government until the 1968 Fair Housing Act and the Jones vs. Mayer decision.

Photo: Monarch Housing Associates

Photo: Monarch Housing Associates

Rothstein notes in his book that his research is not all new: He draws from many earlier sources that describe de jure segregation, which were published decades ago. But he argues that Americans have (conveniently?) forgotten the truth about these pernicious government policies, and that we have convinced ourselves that the government had little to do with segregation and the persistent wealth gap between whites and African Americans. He writes that if we were to confront this fact, then Americans, and especially the white Americans who benefited from these policies, would need to grapple with how to right these past wrongs, and it’s easier to pretend that no one is responsible than to face this massive historical injustice. I think that is all the more reason that we should become educated about our own national history.

Here is an overview of the main examples of de jure segregation that Rothstein discusses:

Suburbs of San Francisco

Suburbs of San Francisco

A succinct case study of the kind of segregation discussed in the book is presented here by the Times as part of their 1619 Project, commemorating the 400 years since Africans were brought to what would become the United States. As described in the article, Atlanta’s highways, which were designed to enforce segregation, plus continued local opposition to mass transit, means that Atlanta has some of the worst traffic in the country. This is just one example of how the legacy of segregation continues to haunt us all. Here’s another article in the same series discussing the wealth gap. It’s not hard to find more examples, once you know what to look for.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in land use, housing policy, and urbanism. For more, check out this Terry Gross interview of Richard Rothstein on NPR. If there are other books you’d recommend on the history of the American suburbs and housing, leave a note in the comments!