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.


Classroom Story

Students in my class are well aware of the fact that things are not as they should be in America. Specifically, they are aware of the fact that the color of their skin, in many ways, determines where they live, the wealth their families have (or have not) acquired, and the opportunities presented to them throughout their lives.

However, despite the fact that awareness of inequality is high, the understanding of WHY inequality, racism, and segregation still exists remains a mystery to many students. Or, they have been indoctrinated with the not-so-subtle message that these issues still exist purely as a result of individual racism or prejudice among America’s citizens. Not many of these young people realize that the dire circumstances they observe are the result of systematic policies that have shaped our country for decades, and are still doing so today.

As soon as students received and began reading their roles for the lesson How Red Lines Built White Wealth: A Lesson on Housing Segregation in the 20th Century, I saw eyes begin to widen. Frantic highlighting and slight gasps of shock, along with giggles of disbelief, began to echo through the classroom. This is when you know students are about to learn something, and learn something that matters. Minutes later, the entire class was on their feet, moving to find someone they could share their “story” with. Maybe it was a story of move-in violence, or the story of how their character used the prejudiced voting population in America for their own personal gains. Whatever it was, students were eager to share and to listen.

After nearly an hour of mingling, the class began to discuss what they discovered. The students who played the government officials, the building contractors, and the loan officials oscillated between outrage and nervous chuckles of disbelief, while those who played black community members seemed to shake their heads in familiar understanding. Was any of the information on prejudice, or the horrifying experiences for the black community, new to them? Not really. However, what they hadn’t understood was the intentional and systemic nature of the government’s involvement in these practices and their outcomes.

At the end of the day, the entire class seemed to leave the room with a newfound sentiment of “now this makes sense.” Now it makes sense as to why the results of the blatant segregation from decades and decades ago still exists. Now it makes sense as to why I live where I live, and you live where you live. Now it makes sense as to why the money resides in certain homes, but not others. And the question that now exists in students minds is not “why,” but rather “how” – “How do we change things? How do we learn more? And how do we make a difference?”

—Jennifer Stangland
High School English Teacher, San Francisco, California

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

  1. pdemura-devore on

    Thank you for creating this. I really like how you organized it and added the individuals, which surely makes it feel more personal/real. I will definitely try this out this year.

    In past classes, I have used part of Episode 3 of Race: The Power of Illusion (PBS), beginning at Chapter 10 (DVD scene #10 in the transcript) in conjunction with the Racial Dot Map, which helps to visually illustrate part of the legacy of redlining.

    Other sources I had students explore last year to drive home the ongoing effects:

    Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America (University of Richmond)
    • “Whites are mainly to blame for air pollution, but blacks and Hispanics bear the burden, says a new study” (The Washington Post, March 12, 2019)
    • “How Redlining’s Racist Effects Lasted for Decades” (The New York Times, August 24, 2017)
    • Segregation in the North; A Case Study: Boston. Digital History.
    • “How Government Redlining Maps Pushed Segregation in California Cities [Interactive]”  (KQED, Apr 27, 2016)
    • “The American Dream: Does Your Zip Code Determine Your Destiny?” (a 20 min. podcast from Pew Charitable Trusts, January 4, 2019) This also has some interesting links to other projects/websites.
    • “3 things schools should teach about America’s history of white supremacy” (The Conversation, February 29, 2019)
    • “Blacks Still Face Redlining on Housing” (The New York Times, April 14, 2018)
    • “Facebook Faces a Reckoning for Redlining” (The New York Times, March 29, 2019)

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