Review: The Color of Law
Updated: Sep 23
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein (2017)
In The Color of Law, Rothstein outlines what feels like the very definition of systemic racism: Racially motivated, government-sanctioned and mandated housing laws and policies, which explicitly forced black people to live in certain, usually undesirable, areas, while whites were allowed to live in "better" neighborhoods. The book goes into great detail on how federal policies in the 1940s & '50s thwarted any ability of black families to become upwardly mobile in owning homes and accumulating wealth. Rothstein stresses that, despite the common refrain that segregation occurred because of private decisions - people wanting to be with "their kind," or individual citizens enforcing their own racist agendas - the actual root of large scale segregation in the U.S. stems from laws and policies created to keep black and white people apart. And we're not just talking about the Deep South. These policies were in place all over the country.
Using historical records, like official legal documents, newspaper articles, and first-person stories of systematic discrimination, the book argues that these Constitutional infringements must not go un-remedied. The point of the book, though, seems not necessarily to be in offering up any cohesive plan for restitution, but to prove without a doubt the fact that the U.S. government not only aided in, but orchestrated the segregation of the country. Restrictive covenants, for instance, barred the sale or occupation of property to black individuals. While these covenants were often created by private building companies or neighborhood associations, they were upheld by the law, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) refused to grant mortgage loans to companies without such practices (or to individual black families wishing to live outside of the designated black areas). The 1968 Fair Housing Act "prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex," however by then the patterns of segregation had taken root, and nothing was done to reverse them.
So why does any of this matter now, when such policies and laws are no longer prevalent or viewed as acceptable? To use an example from the book, take an African-American WWII vet returning from war. These veterans were not able to receive the government-guaranteed mortgages that white veterans received, or move into desirable housing, even if they could afford it on their own. Without being able to purchase a home, they could not gain wealth from home equity appreciation, and their descendants could not then inherit that wealth, as the descendants of white veterans did. With less inherited wealth, black people in the U.S. today are less wealthy in general - less able to afford good homes and a quality education, which would assist them in becoming gainfully employed and amassing wealth of their own.
On top of that, centuries of racially segregated neighborhoods cannot be overturned automatically. Black neighborhoods were placed in undesirable locations and given less federal and state support and amenities - things like libraries, paved roads, public playgrounds and pools, bus services, and more were withheld from these neighborhoods, leading to further depreciation of homes and neighborhoods.
White flight, blockbusting, slum-clearance, red-lining, and urban-suburban education programs (of which my brother and I were a part in the late 1970s/early '80s) are explained. And if you had any preconceived notions that FDR or Frederick Law Olmstead ("the father of American landscape architecture") were the good guys... think again.
Rothstein also shows how police were complicit in the violent resistance that black families were met with when they tried to integrate white neighborhoods, and the ramifications of a continuation of that complicity in today's police force... which we've all seen recently in videos capturing police brutality against those identified as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or People of Color).
The geographic scale, and the long term effects of such policies is staggering. It was truly eye-opening for me to see the extent to which centuries-old practices could have such a dramatic effect on the state of the nation today.
The Color of Law is not an easy read - not so much because of the subject matter (though that's tough too), but because it is written somewhat like a text book. It is very fact-heavy and I found I could only read a chapter or two at a time, and then had to take a break (and I did a lot of underlining and note-taking in the margins!).
My only concerns in reading it were that, a.) it was written by a white man, though he is an Emeritus Senior Fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP, and b.) that his perspective at times felt a little too concentrated on the effects of housing issues, to the detriment of other issues. For example, he asserts that "If African Americans were permitted to vote freely, their political power would be no different from that of others. If discrimination were prohibited in hiring... their workplace status would no longer be inferior," and implies that, unlike housing issues, these other rights are easily remedied without long-term consequences. I disagree. I think that ALL of these discriminatory policies, laws, and practices have long-lasting effects, and cannot be fixed by simply changing the law. However, I get that his focus is on housing, so he is viewing everything through that lens.
Overall it was well worth the read, and I highly recommend the book. It feels really important right now to understand where we've come from in order to fully understand where we are.
UP NEXT: Just finished reading Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo