Today, more than 50 years after the much lauded 1960s era Civil Rights Acts legislated the end of segregation in housing and education, this country is as segregated as ever. The official explanation is that this is de facto segregation, the comforting idea that this segregation is a function of choice. This is notion amplified through our mass media and education system. It is a complete delusion.
There is a piecemeal awareness by some that, over the years – from the 1930s to the present, government and private business carried out policies that created and reinforced segregation. Some are aware of the history of Redlining in the real estate market. But fewer know that this was not a construct of private industry but the result of Federal policy. See the map created by a Federal agency below for an example. Investigate redlining in your city at MAPPING INEQUALITY – Redlining in New Deal America for a complete set of these maps. 1
Piecemeal bits of the story of segregation in housing hide the full reality of how our country came to look the way it does.
A new book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein2 provides a compelling, comprehensive history. Rothstein’s relatively compact, readable exploration of this story presents dozens sad details to flesh out his argument. It will re-educate you about what you think of the history and politics of the 20th century and on into the 21st.
The story is not just about government. It includes a broad set of private and industry players acting in concert with government action and support. All of them pursuing explicit white supremacist beliefs.
Rothstein sets his story within the context of the distinction between de facto and de jure legal states.
De facto means a state of affairs that is true in fact, but that is not officially sanctioned. In contrast, de jure means a state of affairs that is in accordance with law (i.e. that is officially sanctioned).3
His primary objective is to demonstrate that government, Federal, state and local, took a long string of affirmative actions to set up and sustain segregation that is clearly unconstitutional and illegal. He proves the de jure nature of the history then puts the burden on the government, our government, to remedy the situation.
Rothstein describes in great detail the following types of government actions:
- Federal legislation with supporting regulations – e.g. New Deal legislation – Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Fair Labor Standards Act, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Public Works Administration, US Housing Authority, Federal Works Administration.4
- Local zoning and land use regulations – these have been used and continue to be used to concentrate populations and functionally prevent the integration of suburbs.
- Real estate industry – supported and enforced segregation through redlining practices based on government maps and discriminatory practices enforced by the courts.
- Restrictive covenants in land and building contracts and deeds – these were written in based in part on maps created by the Federal government. These blatantly racist legal practices were enforced by state courts into the 1950s.
- IRS grant of non-profit exemption to religious and educational institutions that supported segregation.
- Insurance companies and banks supported whites only housing development.
- “Slum clearance” via the Interstate Highway System and other Federally funded projects
- Locating public schools to reinforce segregation.
- State sanctioned violence against families attempting to move into white neighborhoods
- Suppressed African American incomes due to segregation in housing and education – the concentration and reinforcement of poverty by the government
- Unions were allowed by government to exclude blacks from membership
- Real estate tax assessments and therefore tax burdens are higher on African Americans than whites.
Rothstein notes that the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system was built in 1967 largely with Federal transportation dollars without a single African American worker on the entire project. This because the government refused to enforce the law against the wishes of the local trade unions.
As recently as July 2, 2017 the New York Times ran a story with the title, “Program to Spur Low-Income Housing Is Keeping Cities Segregated” – the beat goes on.
Rothstein does not end his book without addressing the question of what should and can be done to remedy government created and enforced segregation.
The first necessary step is for white people to accept responsibility for the racist actions of their government and their civic and economic institutions. The problem of segregation is not an African American problem. White people created this system and white people must bring it to an end. We need to create a broad public recognition of the facts of the history and reject the comforting notion that all of this happened by a combination of choice and chance. Here the education system needs to abandon its passive voice and actively teach the real history of the 20th century. Rothstein cites a widely used 2012 American history textbook that has this to say about residential segregation:
“African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.” That’s it. One passive voice sentence. No suggestion of who might have done the forcing or how it was implemented.5
More active steps might involve banning exclusionary zoning in the suburbs. Rothstein envisions much more direct action:
We might contemplate a remedy like this: Considering that African Americans comprise 15 percent of the population of the New York metropolitan area, the federal government should purchase the next 15 percent of the houses that come up for sale in Levittown [built with Federal subsidies and excluding African Americans from ownership] at today’s market rates (approximately $350,000). It should then resell the properties to qualified African Americans for $75,000, the price in today’s dollars that their grandparents would have paid if permitted to do so. The government should enact this program in every suburban development whose construction complied withy the FHA’s discriminatory requirements, If Congress established such a program and justified it based on the history of de jure segregation, courts should uphold it as appropriate.6
Rothstein has appeared regularly in recent years. One can find recordings of his lectures, speeches and interviews readily on the internet. Here is a 13 minute speech by him, “A Human Rights Address: How Ferguson became Ferguson” 8/15/2015:
See also Ta-Nehisi Coates’ June 2014 essay in the Atlantic: “The Case for Reparations“
- see http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/housing-discrimination-redlining-maps/ for examples of the Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation maps. https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=4/36.71/-96.93&opacity=0.8 Go Look up your own city [↩]
- Rothstein, Richard. Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017. [↩]
- https://onlinelaw.wustl.edu/blog/legal-english-de-factode-jure/ [↩]
- It must be noted that the original sin of the Constitution with its 3/5ths compromise to count slaves to mollify the Southern slave holders came back in a new form to continue white supremacist rule, now throughout the country. Roosevelt could not pass his New Deal legislation without the support of Southern Democrats, white supremacists to the last. So segregation was written into law and regulation throughout the New Deal and on into the 1960s. This reflects the racism of Northern whites who have repeatedly failed to confront the issues raised by the alleged freeing of slaves at the end of the Civil War. [↩]
- Rothstein, P. 199 [↩]
- Rothstein, p. 202 [↩]