Books: Non-Fiction

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Book – Non-fiction. By Richard Rothstein. 2017.
A history of the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments that promoted racial segregation.

Time Periods: 20th Century, Prosperity, Depression, & World War II: 1920 - 1944, Cold War: 1945 - 1960, People’s Movement: 1961 - 1974, Post-Civil Rights Era: 1975 - 2000, 2001 - Present
Themes: African American, Economics, Racism & Racial Identity

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryIn 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.

Teacher Testimonials

My 8th grade class this year chose to investigate discrimination as part of an emergent curriculum rooted in students' own questions and concerns. Towards the beginning of their investigations, they read an abridged version of "The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. They prepared for and participated in a Socratic seminar on the reading. All students were interested in this essay and the stories shared in it, but some felt that it was unfair to ask people today to make reparation or amends for harms done by previous generations of Americans.

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.
—Gloria Mitchell
Middle School Teacher, Berwyn, Illinois
I have actually used a variation on this lesson across all class levels, from Honors to Standard. It's even come up in my Humanities and Sociology electives. For the US History classes, I primarily build the lesson around White Flight history in post-war America, where we examine redlining maps and FHA policies in the 1940s and 1950s. Depending on the level, students will do a close reading of some articles related to Rothstein's book The Color of Law, and discuss whether they think this qualifies as de jure or de facto discrimination and why. The big reveal however, is when we compare the housing segregation problems of the mid-20th century to today, using the Racial Dot Map. When students see the continuing realities of segregation in current US cities and towns, they are completely floored. I've even had students research their own college demographics compared to this data to discuss diversity and affirmative action policies.

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.
—William Kamps
HIgh School Social Studies Teacher, Hightstown, New Jersey