Conventional wisdom tells us that racial segregation in the United States today is something of an accident—the natural consequence of individual choices. We’re supposed to believe white folks naturally gravitate toward other white folks, and black folks gravitate toward black folks—because that’s what’s “normal.” As long as we don’t ask too many questions, we can live our entire lives believing that’s the truth. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
, by Richard Rothstein, is an excellent antidote to this fairy tale. The hardcover edition was published in 2017, and it was recently released in trade paperback.
I wish I could remember where I first heard Rothstein. Most likely, he was a guest on one of the podcasts that I follow. During the interview, he explained how housing segregation in the United States is not de facto
: it is not merely a result of decisions made by private citizens and businesses. In fact, and quite to the contrary, Rothstein posited, housing segregation in the U.S. is de jure
: it is very much the result of laws and policies established at all levels of American government. And, since the work of governmental entities actively (and provably) segregated us, that means our government has a “constitutional obligation to remedy the effects of government-sponsored segregation” (p. xv, in the book). The length and depth of their discussion was limited by the format, but it certainly left me curious to know more.
Despite the density of the information in the Color of Law
, it was a quick and compelling read. I was hooked from the preface, where Rothstein states: residential segregation across the U.S. is rooted in “unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States” (p. viii). I am a white woman who was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As I reflect on my childhood, and as I look around the current Twin City metro area, it’s easy to see the direct effects of the laws and policies Rothstein covers in the book.
In 1962, my family moved to the South Minneapolis neighborhood that is the northeast crook of the intersection of Minnesota Highway 62 and Interstate 35. I imagine both highways were well under construction when we moved in. Highway 62 marks the border (or barrier, as I now understand it) between Minneapolis and the cities immediately to the south. And I-35 does its part in connecting the far south suburbs to Downtown Minneapolis. Over the years, the suburban stretches of I-35 have been expanded from four lanes to six, and the South Minneapolis segment from four lanes to ten lanes, to accommodate increased traffic. A quick Google search gave me an aerial photo of the dirt scar that was the original I-35 road bed—there’s no denying the stark reality of displaced families, or the way neighborhoods were severed. Over in St. Paul, Interstate 94 was planned, very intentionally, to cut straight through the heart of Rondo, a vibrant African American neighborhood in St. Paul. There are many other examples in the Twin Cities.
With respect to racial segregation seeming “normal,” as a kid, I don’t remember being the least bit curious why only one African American family lived in my immediate neighborhood. Or why the kids in that family were never in the thick of the neighborhood action, especially in the era when parents kicked their kids outside to play, unsupervised. At my house, once we were out the door, my dad didn’t want to see us back in the house unless we needed the bathroom, or it was lunch or dinner time.
I got to middle-school in the mid-1970s, when it was still called “junior high.” At that time, Minneapolis Public Schools were all about desegregation. Kids were bussed to alternate junior high schools for seventh and eighth grades. Then, we were bussed to a different junior high for ninth grade, along with kids from a broader cross-section of the city. I can remember loose talk about how stupid all of this was, though I don’t recall knowing the bussing was court- ordered. For sure, I was oblivious that it was tied to our school system’s failure to enact, in any meaningful way, the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. the Board of Education.
On its surface, housing segregation sounds like a narrow proposition—all about housing. So, as someone (a white someone) who has muddled along in life without serious adversity (and with moderate opportunity), it was sobering to see how access to safe, affordable housing is actually dependent on a foundation of access to education, employment, fair wages, transit, fair credit terms, reasonable deposits and rents, and the ability to maintain even a modest amount of savings. Further, I see how easily I’ve taken that safety net for granted— clueless to how our government cleared the path for me, while at the same time establishing a system of barriers for African Americans. The Color of Law
details the real-life consequences African American people were forced to navigate, as their government and fellow citizens invested so persistently in racist structures.
Rothstein exposes the nationwide, circular nature of systemic racism in the United States: the breadth and tenacity of our white power structure is staggering. It’s wasn’t just one law, or three laws, but countless laws. It wasn’t only laws, but also policies established by a wide variety of government agencies. Not just federal agencies, but state and local governments as well. And not just the agencies, but individual people working within those agencies. The public assistance programs, with altruistic names that invoked egalitarian aims but which, in practice, were not extended to African Americans. Also, the businesses and industries that simultaneously preyed on and exacerbated white fears, and exploited black oppression, for obscene profits. Finally, we cannot overlook the role of law enforcement, as both actor and silent witness, in the violence and terror enacted against African American citizens.
Our courts are also implicated. Certainly, the U.S. Supreme Court is guilty of issuing decisions that upheld racist laws and practices: several are discussed in the book (see page 295 for Rothstein’s list of relevant court and agency cases). There were also instances where the Supreme Court got it right: Brown v. the Board of Education is an easy example. Still, court decisions in favor of civil rights and equality were generally forward facing—they did nothing to address the damage already done to claimants. Worse, many decisions were effectively rendered toothless going forward, by State and local government use of lower courts to delay compliance with Supreme Court decisions. That defiance was often aided by the white citizenry who fought to maintain the racially biased status quo. Many of the same citizens who clung so tightly to the ideal that we are “a nation of laws” enthusiastically violated our laws when it came to terrorizing black Americans.
The Color of Law
convincingly demonstrates that this infrastructure is the product of sustained efforts that are well-documented in the public record. The book also details how wildly successful these policies were in creating exhaustive obstacles to African American’s ability to access the fundamental elements of American life and livelihood. The reader is left with no doubt that, over and over again, whiteness was advantaged at the expense of blackness.
Rothstein knows that even without government interference, many avenues of systemic racism would likely still exist in the U.S.: individual racial bias and self-segregation, banking, real estate, employment, and education. Even so, he asserts that without our government’s backing, such racism would have enjoyed “far less opportunity for expression” (p. viii).
While he acknowledges that we are overdue in making remedy for past wrongs that we’re unable to “provide adequate justice to those whose civil rights were violated” (p. 197), he does not absolve those of us in this present moment from doing what we can to make it right. We citizens, he says, “will first have to contemplate what we have collectively done and, on behalf of our government, accept responsibility” (p. 217). By “we,” Rothstein means “all of us, the American community…bear a collective responsibility to enforce our Constitution and to rectify past violations whose effects endure…We, all of us, owe this to ourselves. As American citizens, whatever routes we or our particular ancestors took to get to this point, we’re all in this together now” (p. xvi).
The Color of Law
is excellent fodder for such contemplation. It is a straight-forward and comprehensive resource about the roots of racial segregation in the U.S. today. Rothstein has given us concrete, historical information and examples, which are always helpful tools when it comes to discussions of race, racism, and whiteness. Far too many of my white friends and acquaintances are reluctant, or even unwilling, to pick up a book. Still, I take comfort in having reliable resources to offer, and to fall back on when I am faced with white denial of our nation’s history and its tangible reach forward into this current moment. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
, deserves a solid position in that category.