Reading The Color of Law

The Color of LawI’ve just finished Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, a thoroughly researched and brilliant analysis of how government action in the United States built and reinforced racial segregation.

It took me several weeks to read this book. That’s not because it was difficult to read. On the contrary, Rothstein has an engaging style and presented a mix of anecdote and data that made it easy to understand both the experiences of African Americans seeking housing and the laws that put barriers in their way. Nor was it because I disagreed with what he was saying. I nodded in agreement at almost every sentence.

It wasn’t the way he said things that made it hard to read the book; it was the things themselves. Reading story after story of how Black people were denied the right to live in various neighborhoods, frequently due to provisions of federal or state law, made me so angry that I had to put the book down and take a break.

It’s not like I didn’t know a lot of this history. I knew about redlining and deed restrictions, about New Deal policies that were slanted in favor of white people because of the southern so-called Democrats who controlled Congress, about job discrimination that forced Black people into low paying jobs, even about the building of highways that cut up Black neighborhoods.

But despite my general knowledge, I didn’t realize that, by federal law and policy, FHA-insured loans – the loans that made the post-World War II housing boom happen – could not be used to buy or develop integrated neighborhoods. The all-white suburbs that surround our major cities didn’t get that way by accident or even due to individual prejudice; they were designed to be that way.

I knew a lot, but until Rothstein put it all together in this book, showing the laws, the history, and the local policies and coupling them with the violent attacks on Black people who did move into so-called white neighborhoods – attacks often sanctioned, or at least ignored, by law enforcement – I didn’t realize how much it permeated every inch of our country.

This isn’t a story of the former Confederate states. Some of the most egregious examples are from northern California, one of the places African Americans moved to for work during World War II. Nor is this an old story; many of these policies were in effect into the 1970s, and the results of them are all around us today.

I’m sure Rothstein’s book holds few surprises for African Americans, though even some of them may not be aware of just how pervasive these policies were. But the average white person in the United States has no idea of just how extreme this discrimination was and how far it reached.

Just as our history books have glossed over slavery and the Jim Crow years, they have neglected to give us the true history of discrimination against African Americans in this country. At their best, school history textbooks cite “de facto” segregation – segregation by custom or tradition. As Rothstein says, “This is mendacious. There was nothing unwritten about government policy to promote segregation in the North.”

Everyone in this country needs to know this history. It’s particularly important to start getting the facts right in a period in which white supremacists are marching in the streets and being encouraged from the White House. We need to recognize that it’s not just the hate-mongers who gave our country its racist legacy.

And we also need to understand that, as with many other things, just recognizing the problem isn’t going to solve it. Those many years of discriminatory policies mean that many Black people have been crippled financially in a culture in which your financial legacy ensures your future.

Just as an example: members of my (white and Anglo) family have owned real estate in this country going back to at least the American Revolution. My sister and I are the fourth generation of women to go to college on my mother’s side of the family. Owning property and getting a college education were givens in my family. There was never any doubt we would do that.

We don’t come from a lot of money or a lot of wealth. My folks were broke more than once when I was a kid. But they had family that could help them past the tough times, because their family had assets as well.

It’s not that there aren’t other groups that have been ill-treated under U.S. law and society over the years. The Japanese internment camps during World War II, the abusive laws that affect Mexican immigrants in particular, the current efforts against Muslims – all are other examples of the way our society is out of whack.

But the treatment of African Americans, starting with slavery and extending through the generations since the Civil War, must be dealt with directly and not just as part of an overall understanding of bad law and discrimination.

I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve seen a lot of good changes over my lifetime. But we still haven’t dealt with all the issues that flow from slavery and Jim Crow. This book is a good place to start.



Reading The Color of Law — 7 Comments

    • That piece by Coates definitely got me thinking more deeply on this subject. In fact, reading all his work has been eye-opening.

      What Rothstein’s book does is lay out fact after excruciating fact about the systemic, structural racism in the US. He puts it all in one place, so we can’t ignore it any more.

  1. And when you’re done with that, read some of the stuff by Naomi Klein on the way the government now uses natural disasters to rush in and privatize basic things in poverty-ridden towns, like the school system in New Orleans after Katrina. It puts a spotlight on the jackasses who are trying to take over the electric utility companies on Puerto Rico or practice voter restriction and gerrymandering all over. This kind of thing is still going on, usually at the expense of poor non-whites, and it is enough to send chills up and down my spine.

    • Yes! Go back and read Klein’s The Shock Doctrine to understand how this works. And then check out Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell to see some good examples.

      But The Color of Law shows that, when it comes to African Americans, the country hasn’t needed disasters to put in place policies to make sure people couldn’t make progress. The fact that Black people who qualified financially couldn’t get federally insured loans makes me so furious. The situation we’re in now didn’t happen by chance any more than the rebuilding of New Orleans to exclude the “wrong” people didn’t happen by chance.

      • I am looking forward to reading Rothstein’s book (and thanks for the recommendation), as soon as I can get my blood pressure down to a simmer instead of a fast boil.

        I am sincerely beginning to wonder if this is the kind of thing that has been happening from the word ‘go’ in this country, and that we have been treated like idiot children for years, along the lines of being told that there is a Santa Claus and that babies are delivered by stork-express. I know that I got turned on to it in the seventies when I ran across a book by the aptly named Gerry Mander called *In the Absence of the Sacred* which details some of the crap Indians were going through at the time. It makes me shudder to think of the lies we are routinely told, and that we might have been unthinkingly complicit all along.

        • Yes, I recommend you make sure your blood pressure is healthy before reading this book! I read it in short sections. Fortunately, it is written in a way that makes that easy.

          And someone should do a similar study on the treatment of Native Americans. That’s another area where I know bits and pieces, but suspect the big picture would show a horde of laws and policies intended to make things worse. It wasn’t just the genocide — which is horrific enough on its own — or broken treaties. I know, for example, that on many Native reservations, local law enforcement has no authority over non-Native people. And that’s just a starting spot.

          The worst thing about the lies is that our country has built policies on top of them.