Teaching Activities (Free)

How Red Lines Built White Wealth: A Lesson on Housing Segregation in the 20th Century

Teaching Activity. By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca. Rethinking Schools.
The mixer role play is based on Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, which shows in exacting detail how government policies segregated every major city in the United States with dire consequences for African Americans.

Time Periods: 20th Century, 21st Century
Themes: African American, Civil Rights Movements, Economics, Laws & Citizen Rights

An 11th-grade student leaned back in his chair at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, and said, “Absurd. That is the only way to describe those numbers. They are absurd.” He and his classmates had just read statistics about the racial wealth gap in their Political Economy class: White households are worth at least 10 times as much as Black households; only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth while a third of Blacks do; Black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000. These numbers are absurd, and they are not accidental.

This lesson, “How Red Lines Built White Wealth: A Lesson on Housing Segregation in the 20th Century,” introduces students to the 20th-century housing policies that bankrolled white capital accumulation while halting Black social mobility — and contributed to the absurd injustice of the modern wealth gap.

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

This lesson is based on The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

The mixer role play is based on Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law (Liveright, 2017), which shows in exacting detail how government policies segregated every major city in the United States with dire consequences for African Americans. Students encounter stories about the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration, redlining, blockbusting, zoning, racially restrictive deeds and covenants, and move-in violence. Students also meet many people who fought bravely against this dizzying array of racist policies.

This could be an introductory lesson in a unit on housing segregation, gentrification, the racial wealth gap, and/or reparations in a U.S. history, economics, or government course.

For more context and background on this lesson, read the online article, The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated the United States by Richard Rothstein.


From the author of The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein:

Richard RothsteinI recommend this important Zinn Education Project lesson, “How Red Lines Built White Wealth: A Lesson on Housing Segregation in the 20th Century,” for use by middle school to college instructors.

Based on The Color of Law, it teaches about residential segregation in a fashion that is both accurate and creative. With it, teachers can correct the misinformation in textbooks that typically promote a myth that we came to be segregated by private actions alone. If younger generations finally learn the truth with a lesson like this, they’ll be in a better position to redress the unconstitutional segregation and inequality that was created by our government.

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