By Brian Knudsen (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
April-June 2017 Issue of Poverty & Race
When Frank Stevenson came to work in Richmond, California during World War II, he found that little appetite existed for residential racial integration. The white residents of rural Milpitas, California got wind in 1953 that the Ford Motor Company plant employing Stevenson and 250 other African Americans would be relocating to their town, and they quickly snapped into action. In a scene that played out in many locales across the U.S. during the last century, the citizens of Milpitas incorporated their city and passed an emergency exclusionary zoning ordinance banning apartment construction and allowing only single family homes. Federal Housing Administration (FHA) approval, necessary to finance construction of low-cost subdivisions in Milpitas and elsewhere, explicitly prohibited home sales to Blacks. With no apartments to rent and excluded from the single-family market, for twenty years Stevenson endured a daily six-hour round-trip commute to and from his residence in Richmond California’s Black ghetto. In his new book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein recounts this and other stories to portray the immense costs and profound consequences of de jure segregation on African Americans. De jure segregation, defined as segregation by racially explicit law and policy, is a complex system constructed over decades to perpetuate— and in some instances to initiate—the spatial separation of whites and Blacks. The Color of Law argues that this type of residential segregation over the course of the twentieth century defined where whites and Blacks could live and denied African Americans access to middle-class neighborhoods, with effects continuing to the present. Furthermore, Rothstein provocatively holds that this governmental promotion of housing segregation—occurring at federal, state and local levels—represents a continuing violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Finally, Rothstein agrees with past Supreme Court precedent (e.g. Milliken v. Bradley, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, etc.) that the enactment of legal constitutional remedies requires showing that segregation had governmental origins. However, whereas Court decisions found no evidence of such state involvement, Rothstein sets out in the book to remove any doubt that such acts took place. Constitutional remedies can be placed on the public agenda, he contends, only after “we arouse in Americans an understanding of how we created a system of unconstitutional state-sponsored, de jure segregation, and a sense of outrage about it….” The core chapters of The Color of Law provide a descriptive historical account of de jure segregation. Rothstein separately discusses each element of de jure segregation, including government enforcement of racially restrictive covenants, the use of zoning ordinances for exclusionary purposes, segregation of public housing, redlining, and explicit racial requirements in the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgage insurance program. While these topics (and the others included in the book) have been frequently treated separately in prior research, perhaps never before now have they been so accessibly joined together in this way. This is an important innovation. Amassing all of this material together portrays in vivid fashion how all-encompassing and multi-varied were the governmental efforts to spatially separate the races, and therefore to exclude Blacks from equal participation in the society, economy and polity. We also learn from Rothstein’s research—so ably presented in colorful examples and stories—that this diverse process played out over many decades and in innumerable locations, both small and large. Overall, the reader leaves the book moved and overwhelmed with the knowledge of the magnitude and creativity of past efforts to enforce housing segregation in the United States. Moreover, The Color of Law is published at an opportune moment. That this book appears in the midst of an emerging zeitgeist of race-conscious scholarship and activism is propitious, and Rothstein clearly intends to contribute to and build upon this new work. Following authors such as TaNehisi Coates, Jeff Chang, KeeyangaYamahtta Taylor, and Michelle Alexander, Rothstein’s book demands that we explicitly and openly grapple with race, with our society’s sordid history of past racial injustices, and with the way that race continues to inform and shape our fraught contemporary moment. As Coates writes in The Case for Reparations, an “America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane.” Furthermore, all of these scholars (as well as activists such as the Movement for Black Lives) call us to put aside colorblind approaches to racial and social justice and to once again heed the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall that “class-based discrimination against [Blacks]” necessitates “class-based remedies.” The Color of Law does all of this, but also makes a novel contribution by focusing raceconscious scholarship upon housing, whereas much of the contemporary literature has centered on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration. Several questions remain unanswered by the book, hopefully to be taken up by future researchers. First, the book infers that contemporary patterns of segregation are directly and singularly caused by governmental acts from decades prior. However, such links between past and present need to be more methodologically and analytically demonstrated than what can be discerned from Rothstein’s historical descriptive account. Similarly, whereas The Color of Law pins all of its explanatory weight to a single factor, complex phenomena—like residential segregation—are instead usually multi-causal. Future work should strive to incorporate other causal elements into our understanding of present patterns and conditions, including empirically modeling and measuring the magnitudes of the relative contributions of different sets of factors. Furthermore, what explains de jure segregation? Was it a reflection of the racist sensibilities of the majority of Americans at the time? Or, was it elitedriven? For instance, on some occasions Rothstein draws attention to governmental responsiveness to the racist views of the citizenry whereas elsewhere he suggests that government policies undid integrated communities in which Blacks and whites were coexisting. Finally, The Color of Law omits any discussion of class and its relationship to race, racism and segregation. Is there any political-economic basis for racism and/or segregative acts or are these expressions of attitudinal deficiencies? Answers to these kinds of questions would merely build upon Rothstein’s contribution, and help to flesh out even more our understanding of these relationships. The Poverty & Race Research Action Council has been exploring the historical roots of segregation for some time, including in three Ford Foundation sponsored studies that trace the development of federal housing and transportation policies in relation to increasing housing and school segregation in American metropolitan areas. (“Housing and School Segregation: Government Culpability, Government Remedies” PRRAC 2004). The Color of Law is a powerful addition to an historical understanding of governmental contributions to segregation.
Brian Knudsen, firstname.lastname@example.org, is Research Associate at the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.