When I started reading The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein I already knew about FHA's discriminatory practices in lending and redlining from previous research for creating a local historic district in Lincoln, Nebraska. This is also how I found out about restrictive covenants that prohibited people from living in a house based on race, religion, and nationality. But what I did not know prior to this book was that racial segregation went far beyond these practices and was part of a broad swath of government policies aimed at segregating America. This de jure segregation was neither "subtle nor intangible," as the author puts it.
The author calls us to collective action to fix the segregation caused by nearly a century of blatant government actions to keep neighborhoods separated, oppressing an entire population and stunting their economic and educational advancement. These government policies created ghettos of concentrated minorities and established barriers to exit. When whites fled to the suburbs, an event that was supported and encouraged by the government, minority populations were restricted to the underfunded inner cities.
Lending practices of the government included withholding mortgages even during post WWII housing shortages if the developers refused to ban black ownership or if they allowed mixed race neighborhoods. They created slums when multiple families were forced to occupy one house to pay the inflated costs available to minority groups. They even put into place affordable housing project rules which banned single parents or noisy kids.
One of the most shocking revelations in this book was finding out that zoning, a practice I was trained to understand as a protection for citizens, was in fact used as a tool to segregate communities at the local level. When federal legislation and court cases banned outright segregation policies, planners turned to zoning to restrict minority populations to certain neighborhoods. The R1 Single Family district became the haven for white middle class residents, while the R2 Multi-family district was placed in areas of industrial development and allowed for minority groups. One quote in the book was so blatant as to say this type of zoning, race zoning, was to protect against "inappropriate uses including encroachment of the colored race."
Another major planning development I learned about in graduate school was Levittown, one of the first New Towns, with 17,500 homes costing $8,000 each for 750 square feet of space. What they neglected to teach was the FHA would only finance these homes if it was restricted to whites only, making it a segregated community. The New Jersey court found that it was basically "publicly assisted housing" and therefore had to sell to blacks. Unfortunately it was not trend setting legislation to dismantle segregated housing as it was a state court, not federal.
Segregation practices were even reinforced through the tax system which allowed non-profit organizations to receive tax breaks even when they led the charge for restrictive covenants and financed segregation in their communities. Even in the early 2000's prior to the housing bubble, lenders were targeting low income blacks with subprime mortgages that would never work out, a practice termed reverse redlining.
The author leaves off with the comment that even small local government discrimination led to a national system of racial segregation. Residential segregation is hard to undue and led to difficulties in desegregation of schools. It will take decades of hard work and intentional policy to undue the damage of those in government who came before us. As the author notes though, it is not up to someone else, but to us to fix this problem. We have a collective responsilbity to undue the damage.