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The Color of Law [Book Review]


The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein charts the history of how local, state, and federal government policies and programs segregated cities across America. It disputes the widely promoted idea that individual racism and racist beliefs were the sole cause of housing segregation and the resulting discrimination that followed. Reaching back to the first wave of the Great Migration in the 1920s, Rothstein thoroughly explains how in most cases, the government led the charge in creating segregated communities even in locations where none had previously existed and citizens had no desire for these restrictive zoning patterns.


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Reading The Color of Law reminded me of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. All three look at how policies, laws, initiatives, and various structural decisions played a part in the current economic state of Black people in America. For anyone that denies structural or institutional racism is a thing, it lays bare the reality that it is a fact.

The Color of Law goes back through the history of Black people in America beginning in the early 1900s and comes to the present, jumping back and forth at some points. I’d previously heard about red-lining, restrictive covenants, etc. but those seemed to all be tactics used by banks and private individuals. As I read, I was surprised at the many examples of the government playing a role in handicapping Black people with regards to housing and homeownership. And not just in terms of segregating communities which led to the creation of what’s termed “Black ghettos” but also the homeownership and wealth gap between Black and White families.

If you were to go by what is portrayed in the media you might be deluded into believing that poor Black people are poor because they don’t want to work. That they want to be on welfare and just have a good time. But these different books provide data and facts that prove that narrative to be untrue.

The reality is that for Black people that have managed to succeed and do well in life, it’s in opposition to society being set up to guarantee your failure or at least make things difficult. Given the history shared in The Color of Law, it’s quite amazing that you ever had any Black homeowners back in the day. These are the kinds of things that make me love learning about Black history, the overall story of perseverance and determination against all odds.

Throughout The Color of Law I asked myself if Black people were being deprived of resources, how is it that some Black people still managed to buy homes? Take into consideration that back in those times as a Black person you were pretty much guaranteed to be turned down for a mortgage and forget about a reasonable interest rate. I couldn’t help but think those people were amazing to still be able to thrive despite the opposition.

Just look at the history and economics of Black communities dating back to the end of slavery through the end of the Civil Rights Era. Some of these communities experienced a degree of stability and financial success that seemed to evaporate around the end of the Civil Rights Movement. But how is it that these once affluent or at least stable Black communities ended up being rundown within a generation? What happened in those years, where it seems that Black communities regressed while the White middle class and communities seemed to progress and expand?

Throughout The Color of Law, there are these occurrences of two-fold issues. Either you have Black people attempting to move to new locations in search of opportunity and facing opposition in obtaining local housing. Or you have pre-existing Black communities where the government exercises the right of way to take over the land through zoning, legislation, and condemnation to build highways or other structures. And with that Black communities are either completely demolished or destabilized by these construction projects which displace families, reduce available affordable housing, and cause overcrowding or abandonment.

It’s a bit frustrating because you look at it and on a basic level it makes clear that there’s this obvious push to keep Black people, especially those who are poor, in the position of being second-class citizens. And in dreaming of how to improve the world, we need equality between the races and we need to improve economic opportunity for the poor and middle class. These are big problems where we all know what needs to be done.

But then when you look at these systems that have been established. It just feels like how are you ever going to get it done? What’s the likelihood of ever completely overcoming or reforming these systems? Can we truly make America the land of equal opportunity that it proclaims itself to be? How and where would you even begin?

So often there’s this idea put forth of racism being this thing that exists in the South while the North and West are very liberal. But the reality is that while slavery existed in the South at one point in time it also existed in the North. And as racism continued after the end of slavery in the South and systems were built upon that structure, this was also the case in the North.

The constant openly violent racially motivated hostility that existed in the South might not have existed in the same form in the North. So during the Civil Rights Era when much of the fight revolved around voting rights and blatant segregation, the South got a lot of attention while inequality in other parts of America went undiscussed.

But when you look into things like housing, education, and employment it becomes clear that modified versions of Jim Crow also existed in the North and West. When I refer to Jim Crow I mean the practice of separate and unequal. Where you structure society in such a way to separate people based on race and then use that qualifier to give one group more access to resources and opportunities while depriving the other.

Much of The Color of Law revolves around this very topic with regards to the history of housing in America. Facts are facts and can’t be argued with. But where I differ with the author is that he seems to regard the division of people itself as being the issue. His focus and thus solution revolves around Black people being able to live in and around the same neighborhoods as White people. Within reason, people should be able to live wherever they want so that’s not the issue. Rather I see unequal access to resources as the real problem.

The segregationist concept of separate but equal was never actually put into effect. Throughout The Color of Law, there are multiple examples of the federal government using the FHA, HUD, and other organizations to establish segregation, even in places where integration was already the norm. I regard that as the government overstepping its bounds.

I see the government as being a referee and thus an entity that should be unbiased in keeping the playing field level rather than being in the fray. Yet, we have examples of the government symbolically putting its hands on the shoulder of one player to hold them back while allowing another to run free and gather up more of the resources.

The federal government is shown as being very committed to this idea of segregating the races. In some instances, people of both races don’t have an issue living next to others as they just want access to good housing. But there are examples of efforts being made to ensure there is adequate housing for White families with regards to the quality of the building and quantity of units. On the flip side, the amount and/or quality of housing provided for Black people is inadequate.

Even housing projects for White families would be numerous, well constructed, up to code, comfortable, and well maintained. Meanwhile, public housing intended for Black people wouldn’t contain enough units so there would be overcrowding. The construction would be of inferior quality because the builders would be denied access to adequate financing due to the intended demographic. And then after completion, fewer resources would be made available for maintenance and upkeep. This is a continuation of the rest of the system.

To combat this inequality the first thing people jump to is integration where you have Black people move into the White housing development. That was the hope of integration and it’s the argument that the author is trying to make. But the real solution is to hold the government’s feet to the fire and say fine, keep things separate if it’s that important to you. But you must also make my housing development equal. If you’re unwilling to build one and make it available to everyone go ahead and build two but they must be of equitable quality.

The reality is that separation of groups of people based on race is just a tactic to prevent solidarity across racial lines. The real issue is that after that separation, the government is not providing both groups of people equal access to resources. Instead, there is favoritism as the government gives one group more. That’s the real issue that needs to be addressed.

Integration falls short because it stops at the symptom of people being separated but doesn’t address the disease of people being systematically treated differently. It gets into this idea of institutions allowing integration if a person can now meet specific criteria. Instead of addressing the problem of discrimination a few more people are allowed to be quasi-members of the preferred group.

What this leaves us with is that as a Black person if you’re rich enough, you can push aside or avoid some of the problems that lower-income Black people will face. You’ll likely continue to face some issues as a Black person but can buy your way out of others. But what about the low-income Black people who remain? It’s not right to set aside a portion of society as being okay to neglect. Case in point, you also find this setup in White America.

Affordable housing is going to be based on your income thus what an individual or the average person in an area can afford. Which is fine. But there’s so much focus on developers not being allowed to build integrated housing. Even with that, low-income people who fall below the average still wouldn’t have access to this supposedly affordable housing.

What would then happen is you’d have middle-class Black and White people living in this integrated housing project. But what about low-income Black and White people? The problem is not lack of integration, the problem is lack of access to equal resources for everyone. Racial separation has never been the real problem as it’s just a sorting mechanism. Lack of equality is the bigger issue.

It’s sort of like integration regarding schools. The initial solution was to bus Black kids in general or in some instances to take the highest achieving kids and put them in White schools. The more logical solution would have been to improve the schools in Black neighborhoods and provide them with more resources. That might be advanced classes for the higher achieving kids and tutoring or trying different teaching methods to keep the average and below-average kids on track.

When you get caught up in a community not being integrated in terms of there aren’t enough Black or White people, it opens the door to tokenism. Where if two or three Black people are allowed in maybe then everyone will be quiet. It’s a way of silencing the discussion and criticism.

The Color of Law did a great job of showing how housing policies and procedures came together, some of which were surprising to me. Housing discrimination was something I thought of as an action on the part of an individual or bank being racist. That’s certainly true to a degree but the government also played a substantial part. It’s made clear here that the government is made up of people. And without proper safeguards in place, people will bring their racist views to work which then affects the decisions that they make in their positions.

There’s a breakdown of how sites were selected for Black versus White communities. Typically the best land would be set aside for White developments. Imagine a scenic location near a nice body of water and when possible good air quality. Whereas the Black communities would be built on undesirable land often near industrial areas or businesses such as processing plants, garbage dumps, etc. that pollute their surroundings. That plays a part in the prevalence of certain illnesses within these communities as they’re at risk of greater exposure.

Even after White families began to move to the suburbs, highways were built to allow for easy commuting into the city. Yet, Black families that were crowded into the city often lived in neighborhoods that were isolated and underserved by public transportation. They were cut off from the suburbs and potential jobs due to their being limited public transportation in those areas. In restructuring cities to aid in segregation, schools were closed and/or moved as a way of getting families to relocate.

For the average American, homeownership has served as a foundation for achieving financial stability and building generational wealth. Many White families were able to use New Deal programs to obtain affordable housing that allowed them to save to buy homes which they could then purchase with FHA-backed mortgages. They were later able to utilize programs like the GI Bill to secure low-interest rate mortgages and advance their educations which allowed them to become more solidly middle-class.

Some might argue that racism is a thing of the past. But those policies and programs that helped White families while Black families were largely shut out have had long-term effects. And that’s in addition to Black people being enslaved and working for generations without receiving pay only to then be forced into sharecropping, convict leasing, and other forms of wage exploitation. And add to that the ongoing practice of predatory lending and real estate practices. Those disadvantages compounded and have continued over time to the point where there’s now a substantial wealth gap between White and Black families.

The more you look back at history and study these things, the more you realize that the problems in the Black community didn’t just occur on their own. The difficulties are not a result of en masse personal failings or bad decisions. It’s a combination of things some of which began decades ago and have compounded into the present. To be clear, I still believe in personal accountability and some of us are out here slipping. But that doesn’t take away from the reality that there have been various factors put in place in an attempt to keep Black people as part of a perpetual underclass.

It’s mentioned that there were Black communities and Black individuals in the past who managed to overcome these obstacles and be successful. So the problem can’t be all-Black housing developments or an all-Black suburb. But yet so much of The Color of Law’s focus is on the push for Black people to live in integrated communities. Whereas I think Black people just need to have a level playing field that would allow them to be housing secure whether than be in integrated or all-Black communities.

With integration, Black people and White people now at least theoretically can live in the same neighborhoods and go to the same restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, schools, etc. Yet, why is it that you still have these economic issues within the Black community? Some of it is a result of the compounding of past discrimination but some of it is a result of continued lack of access to opportunity. It’s pretty much almost impossible in some communities to elevate yourself because there’s so much stacked against you and generationally this has compounded.

As The Color of Law nears its end, the author shares a few ideas for rectifying the problems that have been caused by housing segregation. Some of the ideas are pretty good. Though I don’t know how feasible they would be to carry out as they would require policymakers to get involved and citizens might disapprove. For example, the government could offer affected families homes for purchase at a discounted rate based on past costs which would allow them to immediately gain a substantial amount of equity.

I would have welcomed hearing more creative and interesting ideas along those lines. Instead, the author kept returning to integration as the primary solution. His answer to solving all of these issues is to have Black people move into White communities or otherwise live alongside White people.

This system is built on inequality between how Black and White people are treated and where they’re allowed to go in society. Think of the pipeline to prison. There are all of these little structural settings that have been established in Black communities that affect the childhood education and circumstances for Black youth which puts them on a trajectory that greatly increases the chance that they’ll end up going to prison later on in life.

We see this with housing as well, where there are all of these little steps and machinations along the way aimed at ensuring that Black people won’t be able to buy houses. This isn’t to say that White individuals and families weren’t working hard to achieve their goals. But rather that even with both groups working hard, one was being helped or at least not hindered along the way while the other was having all kinds of obstacles thrown in their path.

It would be like running a race with two runners on the field and they’re listening for different guns to come out of the blocks. But the government and all of these other systems are the referees. They shoot the pistol for Runner A late and physically restrain them in the blocks until Runner B takes off and gets a good way down the track. The race ends and everyone is ragging on Runner A for being a slow runner and not training hard enough. When the reality is that both runners likely trained hard but one was operating from a severe disadvantage.

Society will try to tell you that it’s a natural disadvantage or the pathology of Black people which results in them achieving less. But the reality is that it’s a manufactured disadvantage where you have entire systems and a government structure that’s aimed at holding back Black people. Not just holding Black people back but actively introducing laws and policies. Then turning it around as though it’s the community’s fault or a natural predisposition to failing.

It’s a system that was designed to keep Black people in a second-class position. Meanwhile, it was also designed to help White families achieve progress within that same system. It wasn’t built in a way to give both racial groups or all racial groups a fair shot. Instead, it was designed in a way to show favoritism to one group while disadvantaging and handicapping another.

Later in The Color of Law, the author made mention that segregation disadvantaged both Black and White children. I think from a cultural standpoint it’s certainly true. Being open to new ideas and experiences offers an opportunity to learn and grow as a person. It’s a great way to expand your mind. Consider if you think of this in terms of traveling to other places, experiencing different cultures, and getting to know people from different walks of life. A child or adult having the opportunity to do that just walking out of their front door is pretty cool. But where I took issue and parted ways with the author was the idea of this being something specifically needed by Black children.

I agreed that due to the way Black communities have been planned they contribute to Black children underachieving at school. For example, growing up in these communities where there are industrial zones that give off potentially harmful waste and toxins causes medical issues. This makes kids more likely to be sick and combined with difficulties at home results in them missing school. Parents might also be dealing with employment instability which results in them being poor and having less access to resources.

But somehow the solution to these problems is for Black kids to live near White families. His logic is that within Black communities, there aren’t many examples of individuals who’ve achieved high levels of education and are successful in their careers. It’s a rather simplistic way of viewing things. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Black and White people living near each other. But using this logic, the better solution would be to make changes that would allow more Black people to achieve these things in their lives.

Black people should not have to be in proximity to White people or assimilate into White society for protection from unfair treatment. Integration into an unjust society does not resolve the issue of injustice. It just allows a few more people to participate in the system. Implementing quotas and other gestures encourage tokenism but don’t improve the system for everyone. They are gestures intended to look as though change is being made while allowing things to remain much the same, which shuts down arguments for more to be done.

People get things twisted with integration as the goal for most people on the ground was not to achieve some burning desire to live in proximity to and socialize with White people. The mission was for Black people to obtain rights and opportunities equal to those afforded to White people. Instead, people got wrapped up in the smokescreen of White people fighting against socializing with Black people when they were actually pushing back against Black people having equal access to resources.

I also took issue with a point that was made regarding middle-income Black families living near low-income Black families. He explains that due to housing segregation, middle-class Black neighborhoods are more likely than middle-class White neighborhoods to be adjacent to low-income neighborhoods. He saw this as a disadvantage because kids from middle-income homes might come into contact with Black children and other elements from low-income neighborhoods. This might result in these middle-income kids getting pulled into gangs and other negative influences.

To be clear, wealthier families regardless of race might have access to more resources but that doesn’t automatically make them paragons of virtue. Sure, there might be negative influences in low-income neighborhoods concerning crime and criminal activity. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t equally negative influences in wealthy neighborhoods as well. Consider the various stories about wealthy kids also becoming involved with drugs, alcohol, and risky sexual behavior during their youths. That’s a factor of lack of supervision of individuals who are young and immature and less about socioeconomics.

Not to mention, he argues that Black kids in all-Black neighborhoods don’t have many positive examples of higher educational attainment or professional success. And to combat this, you recommend removing what you deem to be the few positive Black examples of success from the community?

He also makes the point that middle-income Black kids growing up adjacent to lower-income Black communities decreases the likelihood of them being in contact with White people who work in predominantly White corporate America and White working America in general. Without this proximity, Black kids miss out on the opportunity to be positively influenced and better prepared to work in White America.

I’ve heard arguments like this in the past, especially around the time when I was considering college. During my recent review of the movie School Dayz, I touched on being naive enough to buy into this idea. A guidance counselor pointed out then but I didn’t quite understand until sometime later why this ideology is quite racist.

Throughout The Color of Law, the author laments Black people’s inability to move into White neighborhoods. But there is less conversation about White people moving into Black neighborhoods. Part of this is because there are fewer resources made available to the Black community in comparison to White communities. When people speak about integration they generally only expect it to go in one direction. Which is typically Black people moving into White society and adapting White customs, values, and patterns of behavior.

What’s being discussed is not integration but rather assimilation. And there’s a racist undertone because it promotes an idea that Black people need to integrate into White society to learn how to conduct themselves. If a workplace treats its employees fairly and values hard work, discipline, dedication, courtesy, etc. those are traits of a good employee combined with basic decency. Those aren’t soft skills a Black child would need to learn from a White person.

Yet, there is this idea that as a Black person you need to specifically interact with White people to learn how to conduct yourself in the working world. This is what part-time jobs during high school and internships are for. It’s one thing if everyone came together in their youth to learn from each other and thus become more tolerant of differences. But why should anyone have to change to fit the cultural beliefs of one particular group for a chance to be successful?

There is no similar requirement for White youths, workers, and management. Why aren’t White companies and employers being asked to truly adopt practices of diversity where you allow for people from different walks of life to come to work and be their true selves? Instead, there is this idea that you’re allowed to have jobs with the trade-off that you conduct yourself in a way that’s preferred by this majority. Consider the buzzword of “cultural fit”.

Throughout The Color of Law, this over-emphasis on integration rather than equality gnawed at me. My issue is not with integration itself as there’s nothing wrong with Black and White people living in the same neighborhood, working alongside each other, dating, or otherwise socializing. What I take issue with is using race as a divisive tactic to then treat people unfairly and deprive them of opportunities.

In reading a lot of these books, when people speak about integration there are racist undertones. It’s coded language that suggests Black people need to be civilized by White people. You, as a Black person, need to live under the supervision of White people in exchange for more freely moving about in the world. That’s why I asked myself the question of why is it that instead of fixing these problems within Black communities the solution is moving “the good Black people” into White communities?

Look past the smokescreen of race and more closely at the broader American society. You have stagnating wages across the board and there are also poor White people and communities. But because on paper things are finagled to look as though they’ve improved there’s less conversation about truly fixing things. There’s a lot of lip service but little action in truly addressing the problems of the poor regardless of race.

With government assistance in the form of public housing and affordable mortgage programs, select groups managed to move up to the middle-class. In the years since the middle-class has been shrinking due to stagnating wages and homeownership becoming unaffordable in some locations. When it was primarily Black people getting the brunt of these hardships, it was blamed on the personal failings of individuals rather than problems and issues at a higher structural level.

The concept of racism and its resulting social practices have always been about economic exploitation and the continued existence of a permanent underclass. Offering some degree of privilege regardless of amount is simply intended to maintain division within the income brackets of the non-wealthy.

With integration, we’ve simply moved from separation and deprivation that’s blatantly based on race to these practices now being more obviously based on income. This still disproportionately harms Black communities with the difference being that select high- and middle-income Black people are now also offered a bit of privilege. But this only serves to divide the Black community much as it used to divide people of similar income levels based on race.

There is little action taken to expand the middle class by helping those who are most in need. Instead, the priority is to take those select few who are exceptional and have managed to scrape, climb, and work their way to the middle-class while leaving everyone else behind to fight it out. That’s not to say that high achieving Black people should hold themselves back or be forced to remain poor. But rather than making kids run the gauntlet for just the basics in life, they should all be given an equal shot regardless of their race or their family’s economic standing.

Many of the books that I read about Black history and economics are insightful. But I tend to be disappointed because when they get to the topic of describing change and equality it’s usually obtaining privilege within the unfair system which is switching out one hierarchical system for another. The promised land is not acceptance into White society as it’s an unequal society. White and Black people might be divided by race but White people are divided by both income levels and gender.

The author makes some awesome points here and has put together an incredible history of housing segregation in America. Overall, The Color of Law is incredibly informative but he misses the mark with regards to identifying the real problem and thus the most effective solutions.

Granted, the author is a White man, and his experiences influence his perspective. But I don’t think that’s a part of the problem because I’ve also read books by Black authors where they express similar opinions. I tend to nod along for most of the book but we get to a point where I can’t ride any further with their ideas.

Regardless of your race, obtaining privilege at the expense of other people is not achieving equality. Equality is everyone having a level playing field from which to begin. That’s not to say that everyone’s going to be successful. But ensuring that the playing field is level allows an individual’s natural ability to determine their success instead of being artificially handicapped by someone who deems them unworthy.

This is a good book for people who are interested in Black history. But if you’re at least open-minded, it’s also a good book for people to read who believe there’s no longer a need to discuss or otherwise address racism. Especially because it even touches on some recent events showing that these practices still occur in the present. Yet, as with a lot of these subjects, the very person or type of people that would be best served by consuming this content are also the types to be least likely to consume this kind of content.

The Color of Law primarily focuses on housing but still takes a little bit of time to touch on how other economic factors and facets of society work together to create obstacles to Black progress. It’s not as in-depth but does show how these forms of discrimination are interconnected. I would describe The Color of Law as an introduction to institutional and systemic racism through the lens of housing.

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