In this groundbreaking history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation—that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation—the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments—that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.
Through extraordinary revelations and extensive research that Ta-Nehisi Coates has lauded as “brilliant” (The Atlantic), Rothstein comes to chronicle nothing less than an untold story that begins in the 1920s, showing how this process of de jure segregation began with explicit racial zoning, as millions of African Americans moved in a great historical migration from the South to the North.
As Jane Jacobs established in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it was the deeply flawed urban planning of the 1950s that created many of the impoverished neighborhoods we know. Now, Rothstein expands our understanding of this history, showing how government policies led to the creation of officially segregated public housing and the demolition of previously integrated neighborhoods. While urban areas rapidly deteriorated, the great American suburbanization of the post-World War II years was spurred on by federal subsidies for builders on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans. Finally, Rothstein shows how police and prosecutors brutally upheld these standards by supporting violent resistance to Black families in white neighborhoods.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited future discrimination but did nothing to reverse residential patterns that had become deeply embedded. Yet recent outbursts of violence in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and Minneapolis show us precisely how the legacy of these earlier eras contributes to persistent racial unrest. “The American landscape will never look the same to readers of this important book” (Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund), as Rothstein’s invaluable examination shows that only by relearning this history can we finally pave the way for the nation to remedy its unconstitutional past. [Publisher’s description]
ISBN: 9781631492853 | Published by Liveright.
In a follow-up activity, I asked students to listen to Richard Rothstein discussing his book The Color of Law with the podcast hosts of "Have You Heard?" Students were by then in the early stages of production of a podcast of their own, so this was a good format for them to engage with the content, as they could use this podcast as a partial model for their own. We paused the audio periodically so that I could ask students what they understood about the role of the federal government and federal housing policy in people's lives. How did federal policies give rise to housing segregation and housing discrimination? How did this limit Black Americans' access to opportunities to build wealth and economic security? Why were the policies enacted? Who benefited? Who was harmed? How might the policies have had an impact on future generations?
After learning in more depth and detail about dejure segregation, students were much more likely to agree that our government today should play a role in repairing the harms of segregation and discrimination. For some, their concern shifted from the unfairness of white Americans being "punished" for actions of previous generations over which they had no control, to the unfairness visited on Black Americans who were legally barred from using their own resources to secure property and opportunity for themselves and their families.
There's also a C-SPAN lesson plan available on their educator website that includes some short clips of a book talk between Richard Rothstein and Ta-Nehisi Coates about The Color of Law. The clips are short enough to use with a variety of students at different learning levels. It allows students to not only read portions of the book, but hear Rothstein's emphasis on what he determined to be the most consequential policies in shaping segregated housing in America.