Book Review: The Color of Law

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

by Richard Rothstein

This book came out in 2017 and I am surprised I’d only heard of it recently, especially considering my interest in the topic of how to remedy the injustices visited upon African Americans in the USA. I am really glad I read this one and am happy I managed to pull together some semblance of a review/synopsis, in the middle of the chaos that is my current life.

Segregation is unconstitutional. It goes against the 14th amendment because segregation leads to inequality. But for more than a century, US, state and local government policies and laws have directly and indirectly required segregation in housing.

Prior to the Depression many urban neighborhoods had integrated housing because both whites and blacks needed to live close to the factory jobs where they worked. Then along came the Public Works Administration (PWA), part of the “New Deal.” The government demolished integrated housing and put up new segregated housing projects for whites only. Blacks were hard pressed to find housing at all, and were often forced to double up with relatives, or commute long distances to work.

In 1933, the administration created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), which loaned low interest rate mortgages. Before lending, they would want to assess the risk of the property investment and the likelihood that someone living there might not be able to pay back their loan. They hired real estate agents to appraise neighborhoods. Any neighborhood with African Americans living it was colored red (aka “red-lining”). Whites were steered away from living in these neighborhoods and blacks who bought property were given high interest rate loans, which increased the likelihood of defaulting on the loan.

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) did its own appraising as well, which included a whites-only requirement. Basically, unless a neighborhood was whites-only it was deemed risky to loan. To spell it out more clearly, it was difficult to get a mortgage if you were black. Not only that, if you were a white person who dared to rent or sell your home to a black person or family, you could go to jail, and the black family’s home would get set upon by mobs of angry whites, pelting the property with bricks, or dynamiting it, while the police did nothing to stop it.

The 1949 Public Housing Act allowed public authorities to continue creating segregated housing projects, and eventually African Americans were crammed into high rise buildings with absent building management and maintenance, with no perks of the white projects like parks and community centers. Zoning laws ensured that African Americans were housed near industrial areas, near sources of pollution and close to liquor stores, night clubs and houses of prostitution. They deliberately built the interstate highway system through African American neighborhoods. Later on, the FHA would rule that one could not get an insured amortized mortgage if you were trying to buy property near industrial or commercial areas, thus ensuring that African Americans would be hard pressed to benefit from building wealth through home ownership. Nor could they benefit from the tax break millions of homeowners get when they deduct their mortgage interest on their taxes.

Those who wanted to build integrated housing were battered with obstacles. They were unable to benefit from FHA financing, because the FHA would only loan to builders making whites-only neighborhoods, so would have to secure private financing instead. One story about this was particularly mind-blowing.

When Ford wanted to relocate its plant to Milpitas, California from Richmond, and the union want to help both white and black workers to relocate as well, it was no trouble to have a whites-only community built, but where would the black workers live? The chair of the Ford Plant’s union housing committee, Ben Gross, got help from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker group, to find a builder and a financier to develop a plot of a land ten miles west of Milpitas for an integrated community. But the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors got wind of the plan, and rezoned the site from residential to industrial. A second plot of land was proposed, but Mountain View officials refused to grant approval. A plan for a third plot of land fell through when officials discovered the project would not be segregated, and rezoned the land to increase the minimum lot size, making it unfeasible for working class buyers. The builder gave up after the owner of a fourth site cancelled the sale after learning what the land would be used for. Ben Gross then found another builder, but banks would not lend to the project unless they paid a jacked up interest rate of 9% instead of 3.5%, which would have made the houses unaffordable. They went back to the original, Quaker-connected financier and secured financing. By this time more than a year has passed, and black workers are now making a 100-mile round trip to work each day. Next the Santa Clara board of supervisors raised the fee for sewer access to an unaffordable figure. Multiple tricks later, this project was finally built, between two highways, but the FHA would only guarantee mortgages with a decent rate if it were done as a cooperative, with the African American families owning shares of the property rather than the homes themselves.

“Zoning thus had two faces. One face, developed in part to evade a prohibition on racially explicit zoning, attempted to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods by making it difficult for lower-income families, large numbers of whom were African Americans, to live in expensive white neighborhoods. The other attempted to protect white neighborhoods from deterioration by ensuring that few industrial or environmentally unsafe businesses could locate in them. Prohibited in this fashion, polluting industry had no option but to locate near African American residences. The first contributed to creation of exclusive white suburbs, the second to creation of urban African American slums.”

There’s a lot more in this book: 2008 housing crisis, “slum clearance,” various Supreme Court rulings such as Brown vs Board of Education, race restrictive covenants, “gentrification,” Levittown, “white flight,” state-sponsored violence and the governmental policies that have purposely kept black incomes low.

Please read this book, it is very eye opening. Any objections one might consider to his arguments have likely been covered in the FAQ at the end of the book. There are tons of footnotes. Rothstein even has a chapter devoted to possible fixes.

So next time you hear someone claim that African Americans just need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps, work hard and get over it,” remember that the playing field is not any where near even, and the American government has played a large role in making that so.

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