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.
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:
- The US military enforced segregation in federally-provided public housing during the 1940s war years, allowing African Americans to work in military production, but not buy homes in new whites-only federally-funded worker housing. This occurred even in the San Francisco Bay area, which did not have a previous history of segregation. (Ch. 1)
- The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which underwrote (insured) mortgages around the country, and whose policies dictated the requirements of lenders nationwide, enforced segregation by requiring that all new mortgages issued were only for segregated neighborhoods. The Veterans Administration (VA) did the same. (Ch. 2)
- Local governments adopted explicitly racial zoning ordinances in the early 20th century, starting with Baltimore in 1910, that zoned different areas for whites and blacks. This practice was deemed illegal in 1917 by the Supreme Court, but most cities ignored the ruling. Cities continued passing racial zoning restrictions in various forms, attempting to subvert the law, through the 1930s, when they turned to economic zoning restrictions instead, by zoning areas for single-family (read: wealthy white residents) only, and placing industry next to and around areas that were predominantly African-American. (Ch. 3)
- Federal policy under the 1930s Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) provided low-interest loans for new suburban housing developments, based on the previously-mentioned FHA Underwriting Manual, only if the loan was made for an all-white suburb. Interest rates and property valuations were based explicitly on the race of the intended homeowners. An example is Levittown, one of the most famous new suburbs of the post-war era. (Ch. 4)
- Local and federal agencies encouraged and enforced restrictive covenants, which became common in the 1920s after racial zoning was declared illegal. Restrictive covenants enforced segregation by disallowing homeowners from selling their property to African Americans, and providing for eviction or monetary penalties if the covenant was not followed. Only in 1948 did the Supreme Court rule that states may not enforce restrictive covenants with government power (eg, police power). However, the FHA continued to insure properties that had restrictive covenants through the 1960s, which ensured that they remained in effect. Not until the 1970s did the Supreme Court rule that all such covenants are a violation of the 14th Amendment and the Fair Housing Act. (Ch. 5)
- Various federal regulations either promoted or allowed segregation. For example, the IRS granted tax-exempt status to groups that promoted segregation, thereby making regulators complicit with discrimination. The FDIC did not oppose the denial of mortgages to African Americans, although it was abundantly clear that the banks they regulated were doing just that. And federal regulators upheld real estate boards that included mandatory discrimination (segregation) in their codes of ethics for realtors. (Ch. 7)
- Local officials used all the tools at their disposal to create and enforce segregation, including routing highways between white and black neighborhoods, or through black neighborhoods; relocating schools to enforce patterns of segregation; or throwing legal roadblocks in the way of proposed integrated new suburbs. (Ch. 8)
- State-sanctioned violence maintained segregation and terrorized families that attempted to integrate segregated neighborhoods. Police would sometimes do nothing to stop mob violence against African American families, or would even actively participate in the violence. (Ch. 9)
- Government policy purposely kept the incomes of American Americans lower, by excluding African Americans from labor protections, taxing their property at higher rates, allowing segregated unions, and practicing discriminatory hiring for government jobs. (Ch. 10)
- Some government policies have ended up enforcing segregation even if they were not originally intended to do so. An example is the mortgage interest deduction, which favors homeowners over renters. By subsidizing generally wealthier, generally white homeowners over generally poorer, generally minority renters, the mortgage interest deduction perpetuates the same system that put white families in some neighborhoods and black families in others. (Ch. 11)Rothstein goes on to argue that the US needs to work actively to de-segregate our neighborhoods in order to improve our cities and the opportunities for our citizens. He suggests banning zoning that prohibits multifamily construction (that is, banning single-family zoning); eliminating the mortgage interest deduction for suburbs that lack multi-family or moderate-income single-family housing; and enacting inclusionary zoning. He also suggests that HUD could, as a demonstration project, buy 15% of the houses for sale today in Levittown (usually going for $250K or more), and sell them to African American families for $75K, which is the price in today’s dollars for the homes that were available only to whites in the 1950s. This wouldn’t solve the problem of segregation on a large scale, but it would make clear how the federal government was complicit in segregation. Rothstein further argues that this type of retribution is a constitutional obligation under the 13th Amendment, and not just a morally right, and economically justified, course of action.
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!