Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, published in 2017, is among the books excavating the roots of racism and white supremacy in the United States that has zoomed to the top of bestseller lists in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
The book’s title comes from the longstanding practice of redlining, part of the color-coding scheme lenders used to indicate which neighborhoods were fit for home loans and which weren’t. For decades, banks drew red lines around neighborhoods with Black homeowners even if they were well-to-do, signaling that these areas were “high risk.”
As a result, Black families could not finance mortgages on the same terms as whites.
But in a packed and unrelenting 240 pages, Rothstein goes well beyond describing color-coded maps. He shows that “until the last quarter of the twentieth century, racially explicit policies of federal, state and local governments defined where whites and African Americans should live.” And critically, these myriad discriminatory practices ensured that, to this day, Black people are far more likely than whites to be consigned to substandard housing, with access only to underfunded schools in impoverished and unsafe communities.
In addition, these practices robbed Black families of opportunities for the transfer of intergenerational wealth that has sustained so many white families. In 1968, after civil-rights-era legislation and court rulings largely brought an end to legally enforced segregation, the average wealth of a Black family was less than ten percent of that of a white family. And 50 years later, that wealth gap is essentially unchanged
One critical driver of racist housing policy was the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created in 1934 during the Great Depression. The FHA backed loans to banks issuing mortgages and spurred massive new investments in residential building projects. But until the 1960s, the FHA largely refused to guarantee loans for integrated housing projects. When the FHA drew up guidelines for appraisers in preparation for home sales, for example, it indicated that they should favorably view “appropriate deed restrictions” and “proper zoning regulations.”
If the point wasn’t clear enough, the guidelines stipulated that “adverse influences” included “infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups.” Those guidelines also made clear the necessity of having deed restrictions that prevented the sale or renting of property to Black people. Combined with other policies, government institutions ensured that major public housing projects would be built in segregated neighborhoods and that new middle-class suburbs, like Levittown, would exclude African Americans.
Federal housing policy worked in tandem with other developments to enforce residential segregation. For example, Black families who did manage to purchase homes in predominantly white neighborhoods were routinely harassed or terrorized, often forcing these families to leave. The typical police response was to stand by and do nothing.
When the United States poured billions of dollars into a massively expanded highway system in the 1950s, it used the opportunity to displace many African Americans from their homes, often without compensation. Many new highways ran through the heart of urban neighborhoods, often with the explicit intention of cutting off white from Black residential areas.
The highway system also created the infrastructure that allowed millions of white Americans to decamp from cities to newly built suburbs from which Black families were all but locked out by government policy. By the time federal law shifted fundamentally in the 1960s, the die had already been cast on contemporary residential patterns, school resourcing, and wealth accumulation.
This is but a taste of the exhaustive account Rothstein provides of the scope and consequences of government policy to segregate housing in America. But the implications are profound.
In his landmark 2014 article “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates described the Chicago housing market after World War II, where systematic government policy combined with violent hostility to integrated neighborhoods required African Americans to buy substandard housing on worse financial terms than whites. Among many consequences, African Americans were robbed of individual, family, and community wealth.
As writers like Coates and, more recently, Nikole Hannah-Jones make the case for reparations, any accounting of how to redress racist residential architecture has to take seriously the massive intergenerational theft that resulted.
JONATHAN WEILER is a teaching professor in global studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide and Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Comment on this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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