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The Color of Law
A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
Richard Rothstein
read on April 10, 2018

Rothstein's goal in The Color of Law is incredibly precise: to show how and why, since the ratification of the 14th amendment following the US civil war, racial segregation in US housing has not been de facto (reflecting the natural and free-market preferences of the people), but rather de jure (a consequence of unconstitutional US law and social policy). Rothstein is effective in doing this, and the book is a disgusting reflection of a sordid US history and present.

  • "Blockbusting" used to be a common practice, where (white) speculators would sell a white-neighborhood home to a black family, then scaremonger the remaining homeowners of a pending "Negro invasion" into selling their homes at highly below market rates (they would basically race each other out of the neighborhood). The speculators would buy the homes directly, and then turn around and sell them to black families at above-market rates, since housing was so highly demanded by blacks, and so poorly supplied. These blockbusters would literally hire black people and pay them to loiter in the neighborhood and cause trouble. This was not illegal.
  • Until about the 1950's the FHA/VA would not insure mortgages to blacks (full stop), nor to whites when buying homes in predominantly black communities. This blew my mind. It's hard to imagine how a court could not interpret this as a violation of the 14th amendment. This single item made it almost impossible for black families to own homes in the US until the 1950's. Not only did this policy segregate races into distinct neighborhoods, but it blocked blacks from accumulating wealth via home equity.
    • As a tangent, I was surprised to learn how hard it was even for whites to own homes during this time, even through the 30s. Mortgages used to be 50% down, interest only payments, with lump sum due 5-7 years later. This began to change with the FHA in the 30s/40s, and really changed during the 80s with Louis Ranieri. For all its downsides, mortgage securitization was, at a time, a very good thing.
  • City zoning ordinances allowed the outright blocking of black home ownership/rentals by zone. In black-zoned areas, cities also allowed industrial zoning, garbage dumps, bars, brothels, etc. They also allowed super high density and lot subdivision in black-zoned areas, leading to overpopulated slums, whereas white-zoned areas were single-family only.
  • Housing covenants (private agreements, similar to HOAs today) strictly limited POCs from owning or residing in homes, except as servants. This limited who you could even re-sell your home to.

Reading this book makes it so clear how little we've done since the civil war, and how far we still have to go. 

Author Bio:

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and of the Haas Institute at the University of California (Berkeley). He is the author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other booksellers. The book recovers a forgotten history of how federal, state, and local policy explicitly segregated metropolitan areas nationwide, creating racially homogenous neighborhoods in patterns that violate the Constitution and require remediation. He is also the author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (2008); Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (2004); and The Way We Were? Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement (1998). Other recent books include The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement (co-authored in 2005); and All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different? (co-authored in 2003). He welcomes comments at riroth@epi.org.