The Color of Law: Author Richard Rothstein Examines Government Role in Housing Segregation
Not long after the invitations were sent, NYLAG’s LegalHealth attorneys realized they’d struck a chord. More than 300 RSVPs poured in.
In September, NYLAG welcomed author Richard Rothstein, who spoke about his new book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Rothstein was interviewed by NYU School of Law Professor Vicki Been.
“Our clients deal with housing issues every day, but we don’t often stop and think about the broader context,” said Randye Retkin, Director of NYLAG’s LegalHealth Unit. “We fight hard for our clients—my hope is that with a greater understanding of the historical and systemic issues that relate to housing we will have more tools to address this crisis.”
With the room fully packed, Been kicked off by asking Rothstein to explain how he came to write The Color of Law. Rothstein, a Research Associate at the Economic Policy Institute, is the author of several books on education policy, but writing about housing was a first.
“The biggest problem in education is the achievement gap between disadvantaged and middle class children, between white and black children,” he said.
Rothstein began to connect the dots between the “racial achievement gap” (which he has written about elsewhere) and housing segregation between white and black families, which has persisted for decades and shaped today’s neighborhoods.
Rothstein draws a sharp distinction between what he calls “de facto” segregation based on real estate costs, income levels, and personal choice and “de jure” segregation resulting from local, state, and federal governmental policies explicitly dictating where black families could and could not live.
“The racial boundaries of our metropolitan areas are as unconstitutional as school segregation was before 1954, or laws requiring African Americans to sit in the back of buses were in the 1960s. It’s an unconstitutional system, and we never remedied it.”
In his book, Rothstein cites governmental policies in place throughout the 20th century, including Levittown in Long Island, NY:
“Consider the iconic Levittown suburb in Nassau County, N.Y. In 1947, a vast housing shortage existed for both black and white workers and returning war veterans. The federal government financed the Levitt company to construct 17,000 units. These Levittown homes were easily affordable, but the government explicitly prohibited Levitt from selling (or renting) to African Americans.”
These affordable housing units were subsidized by the U.S. government and made available exclusively to white home buyers, paving the way for decades of housing segregation. Today, Levittown is less than 1 per cent black.
Rothstein cites similar examples of government-sanctioned segregation policies in cities from Louisville and San Francisco to Cambridge and Cleveland.
“I particularly wanted to emphasize places in the country that are known to be more liberal than others,” said Rothstein. “If I could show people how the government explicitly segregated liberal areas like San Francisco and Cambridge, it would be easier to understand that if it happened there, it happened everywhere.”
In addition to explicit prohibitions, Rothstein also cited exclusionary zoning ordinances that were designed to prevent African Americans and foreigners from moving into certain neighborhoods.
The net effect of decades of housing segregation has led to sweeping inequalities in wealth between white Americans and African Americans. African Americans, on average, earn only 60% of the income of white Americans—but an even more startling statistic looks at overall wealth. Compared to white Americans, African Americans possess only 7% of wealth, which white families gained largely through the equity in their homes.
“The difference in wealth between African Americans and white Americans is almost entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy by the US government,” Rothstein said. “And unless we desegregate neighborhoods, we can’t desegregate schools—and the inequalities will only persist.”