Why The Color of Law is a Must Read for Community Developers

Today, April 11, marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Federal Fair Housing Act, and to mark the occasion I spent the weekend reading The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein.  To be honest, when the book was first released I was unsure whether I would read it, thinking arrogantly that “I know that story already.”  After all, I’ve been working in community development for 25 years and have taught graduate level courses in community development and affordable housing. After I missed seeing Mr. Rothstein speak at a recent event with Massachusetts Community Banking Council, I figured I should reconsider.   I’m glad I did.  I learned a tremendous amount pouring through chapter after chapter this weekend.  To put it simply:  I consider this book to be required reading for any serious community developer, affordable housing advocate, or frankly for anyone interested in America’s history . . . and America’s future.

The book is framed as a rebuttal to an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2007 in which he rejected school desegregation programs in Louisville and Seattle by arguing that when residential segregation “is a product not of state action, but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications.”  Rothstein proceeds to document, in brutal detail, that segregation in America is indeed the result of governmental action and this “de jure segregation” violated our Constitution, and therefore, requires a constitutional remedy.

The book effectively combines stories about particular families and places, data, and a systemic analysis of the multiple and reinforcing ways that government – federal, state and local – systematically segregated our country.   Some of the laws, policies and practices that were deployed include:

  • Zoning that explicitly required blacks and whites to live in different neighborhoods, followed by various forms of exclusionary zoning that prevented rental housing and low-income housing from being developed in many communities;
  • Financing programs that encouraged developers to build segregated developments and literally prevented developers from building integrated housing developments, even when developers wanted to do so;
  • Redlining practices that ensured government-subsidized mortgages were only offered to white families;
  • Government enforcement of racial covenants that prevented homes from being sold to African Americans;
  • Demolition of African American neighborhoods that forced residents to relocate to other areas;
  • Highways strategically located to destroy black neighborhoods, to provide barriers between blacks and whites, and to enable whites to move to the suburbs;
  • A failure to arrest perpetrators who used violence to scare and intimidate African Americans who moved into white neighborhoods;
  • Relocating schools to force black (and white) families to move to new neighborhoods, so their children could attend public school;
  • Systematically undermining economic opportunities for African Americans to prevent them from gaining the economic wherewithal to compete with whites in the housing market; and
  • On and on and on it goes.

The impact of these policies and programs, many of which were enacted by liberal elected officials,  was staggering.  Indeed, there were many integrated communities across America in the early 20th century but these communities were systematically destroyed.  Many developers sought to build integrated communities only to be denied by federal, state and local policies.  Middle class black families who were well on their way toward the American Dream had their long term economic prospects (and those of their children and grand-children) artificially short circuited because they were unable to buy a home and build equity.  And, yes, there were white families who wanted to live in integrated communities but were blocked by the government from doing so.  Significantly, these policies were in full force from 1945 to 1968 when our country went through a period of massive housing development.  By the time the laws began to change, it was too late: modern America had been built and residential segregation was institutionalized.

As a community developer and an advocate of affordable housing, the book forces some difficult questions.  Are we unintentionally perpetuating segregation today? Does affordable housing policy focus too much on the provision of shelter for the poor and not enough on the need to promote integration?  How does this history challenge our views about gentrification or the growing suburbanization of poverty?  Given the limited funding for subsidized housing, how can we better leverage the market to drive integration? What is the proper remedy for racially concentrated areas of poverty?  I still have more questions than answers.

Perhaps because I have so many questions, I was a bit disappointed in the section on possible remedies.  He readily acknowledges that some of his suggestions are politically impossible under almost any scenario.  Other ideas that he offers are the same ones that we already frequently hear – such as locating more affordable housing in middle class neighborhoods and allowing Section 8 tenants to rent more expensive housing – remedies that are small scale at best and would do nothing to improve the quality of life for millions of African Americans and others that would inevitably remain in poor communities.  The section fails to adequately deal with the many complexities we face in undoing nearly a century of de jure racial segregation.  He perpetuates the stereotype that low-income communities of color lack assets and does not fully acknowledge that many people of color are seeking to preserve their communities as well as their cultural and historic significance.  He also does not adequately discuss, in my view, the complexities associated with integration in a society that is no longer just black and white, but is growing more and more diverse.

Rothstein does offer one recommendation with which I whole-heartedly agree.  He argues that we need to revamp our high school history curriculum and textbooks to make sure the history of de jure segregation is taught to all Americans. He points out two major high school textbooks that barely mention the subject – one book has just a single sentence on the subject out of 1,000 pages!  Rothstein makes a compelling argument that we can’t even begin to address this issue effectively until we gain a shared understanding that residential segregation in America is the result of explicit, sustained, pervasive, creative, insidious governmental action.  The Color of Law makes a major contribution to that effort and should be read not only by students, but also by jurists, policymakers, advocates, citizens . . . all of us.