Most of us look around our neighborhoods, towns, cities, counties and probably think it’s totally “natural” (e.g., things just evolved that way because of individual preferences, geographical features, proximity to major economic centers, whatever – but certainly nothing insidious, let alone racist, about it) that things would be the way they are. For instance, I bet that most people barely give a second thought, at least not consciously, to the mix of people who live in their community, the most common modes of transportation, the size of lots, how clean/dirty it is, how urban/suburban/rural it is, the most prevalent types/sizes of housing, the mix of owners vs. renters, you name it.
Of course, the reality is that almost none of this just sprung up “naturally.” To the contrary, almost every aspect of the way we live in America developed due to decisions made/policies enacted by people with the power to make those decisions/policies at a variety of levels — including the federal government, state government, local government, etc.
There are a few good books that discuss this subject, such as the classic, Suburban Nation, which among other things details how government policies in a wide variety of ways – and at the federal, state and local levels – have, for decades, both directly and indirectly encouraged the environmentally destructive, fossil-fuel-guzzling “sprawl model” of development, at the expense of “smart growth,” “transit-oriented development,” or a focus on building great cities.
However, I don’t believe that, before I read The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (by Richard Rothstein) recently, I’d ever run across a book that specifically looks at how our pattern of development came about from a racial (or more accurately, racist) point of view. And I’m sure I’ve never come across a book that marshaled such a massive amount of evidence – data, historical evidence of all types, you name it – to, as the New York Times review of “The Color of Law” puts it – “quite simply [demolish] the notion that government played a minor role in creating the racial ghettos that plague our suburbs and inner cities.”
To the contrary, the central thesis of “The Color of Law” – again, backed up by massive, overwhelming, really irrefutable evidence – is as clear as it is disturbing: that, going back to the end of post-Civil-War Reconstruction, what we’ve had in this country is “a policy of de jure segregation in virtually every presidential administration, including those we normally describe as liberal on domestic issues.”
Here are just a few highlights from the book (bolding added by me for emphasis), just to give you a flavor for how this systematic, pervasive, unconstitutional, de jure segregation of America has come about, and what the impacts have been. I strongly recommend that everyone read the whole thing, though; it’s important that we all know about how we ended up where we’re at today…and what we’re up against in terms of addressing the situation.
- Segregationist policies were not just “a project of southerners in the former slaveholding Confederacy,” but “a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century,” including “scores of racially explicit laws, regulations, and government practices [which] combined to create a nationwide system of urban ghettos, surrounded by white suburbs.”
- There was certainly PRIVATE discrimination as well, but this would have been FAR LESS effective “had it not been embraced and reinforced by government.”
- I’m not sure what the most disturbing aspect of this book is, but I’d definitely argue that the obliviousness of those (particularly white people) who have benefited, and continue to benefit, from the racist, segregationist policies pursued for more than a century, is high on the list. As “The Color of Law” explains, “Half a century ago, the truth of de jure segregation was well known, but since then we have suppressed our historical memory and soothed ourselves into believing that it all happened by accident or by misguided private prejudice.”
- Flowing from this false, willfully oblivious view of our history comes court decisions – including by the Supreme Court – that supposedly segregation in America has been the result mostly of PRIVATE choices, and therefore “does not have constitutional implications” (to quote Supreme Court Justice John Roberts in 2007) – or, as the author of “The Color of Law,” Richard Rothstein, writes, “a constitutionally acceptable, racially conscious, remedy.”
- The book then proceeds to lay out a massive amount of evidence that Chief Justice Roberts, and many others, are wildly off base on the facts of how residential segregation in America came about. For instance, Rothstein explains how the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act – and other New Deal measures – could only be passed with “the votes of southern congressmen and senators, who agreed to support economic reform only if it excluded industries in which African Americans predominated, like agriculture.”
- Rothstein explains how the government responded to housing shortages during the Great Depression, World War II, and after the war by building public housing, but also by “construct[ing] separate projects for African Americans, segregat[ing] buildings by race, or exclud[ing] African Americans entirely from developments.”
- The pattern of housing segregation also extended to programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and other New Deal agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which built segregated housing of differing levels of quality (take a guess; yep, “comfortable homes” for white people, “shoddy barracks some distance away” for African Americans).
- The FDR administration’s Public Works Administration (PWA) specified a “neighborhood composition rule,” in which “projects in white areas could house only white tenants, those in African American areas could house only African American tenants, and only projects in already-integrated neighborhoods could house both whites and blacks.” To make matters worse, PWA would designate “many integrated neighborhoods as either white or black and then used public housing to make the designation come true.” In other words, the PWA (and also the U.S. Housing Authority) CLAIMED “to respect existing neighborhood racial characteristics,” while “in practice creating new racially homogeneous communities.” The bottom line is that “the federal government’s housing rules pushed…cities into a more rigid segregation than otherwise would have existed.”
- The World War II-era Lanham Act “to finance housing for workers in defense industries…played a particularly important role in segregating urban areas.” For instance, the government routinely “provided war housing only for whites, leaving African Americans in congested slums and restricting their access to jobs.”
- Yet another tool governmental entities used to create, intensify or enforce racial segregation was “racial zoning,” something that routinely took place at the local level. For instance, in 1910, Baltimore “adopted an ordinance prohibiting African Americans from buying homes on blocks where whites were a majority and vice versa.” Following Baltimore, “many southern and border cities…adopted similar zoning rules.” An example right here in Virginia was in 1924, in Richmond, which worked to get around the Buchanan v. Warley Supreme Court decision (which ruled that “racial zoning ordinances interfered with the right of a property owner to well to whomever he pleased”) by “adopt[ing] a law banning interracial marriage so the city then prohibited anyone from residing on a street where they were ineligible to marry a majority of those already living there.” That’s just one appalling example of how zoning was used to promote racial segregation and prevent racial integration.
- By the way, note that none of this is “ancient history.” As “The Color of Law” explains, “The use of zoning for purposes of racial segregation persisted well into the latter half of the twentieth century.”
- An example of how racial and environmental injustice often go hand in hand is the “increasingly common” practice in the 20th century for “commercial waste treatment facilities or uncontrolled waste dumps” (also, I’d point out, fossil fuel operations of various types) “were more likely to be found near African American than white residential areas.” And this wasn’t just by chance, either, but again the result of governmental zoning choices that “attempted to protect white neighborhoods from deterioration by ensuring that few industrial or environmentally unsafe businesses could locate in them,” thus giving those businesses “no option but to locate near African American residences.”
- The Federal Housing Authority (FHA), created in 1934, required that to be eligible for its mortgage insurance, “the FHA’s appraisal standards included a whites-only requirement,” which means that “racial segregation now became an official requirement of the federal mortgage insurance program.” As such, “The FHA judged that properties would probably be too risky for insurance if they were in racially mixed neighborhoods or even in white neighborhoods near black ones that might possibly integrate in the future.” As if that’s not bad enough, the FHA was also “particularly concerned with preventing school desegregation.” Also worth noting, “The FHA had its biggest impact on segregation, not in its discriminatory evaluations of individual mortgage applicants, but in its financing of entire subdivisions, in many cases entire suburbs, as racially exclusive white enclaves” – the famous Levittown and many other suburban developments.
- Then there were instruments known as “restrictive convenants,” which during the first half of the 20th century, routinely included “a promise never to sell or rent to an African American.” One such “restrictive covenant,” from “a property in suburban northern New Jersey” in 1925, read “There shall not be erected or maintained without the written consent of the party of the first part on said premises…any structure other than a dwelling for people of the Caucasian Race.” Again, this wasn’t just a “private” issue, as “government at all levels became involved in promoting and enforcing the restrictive covenants,” with courts even “order[ing] African Americans evicted from homes they had purchased” and “[l]ocal governments aggressively promot[ing] such covenants, undermining any notion that they were purely private instruments.”
- To illustrate how pervasive the role of government was in de jure promoting racial segregation in America, the book discusses “the willingness of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to grant tax-exempt status to churches, hospitals, universities, neighborhood associations, and other groups that promoted residential segregation,” and also “the complicity of regulatory agencies in the discriminatory actions of the insurance companies and banks they supervised.”
- The following passage is worth quoting at length, because it really sums up the thesis of the book well: “the extraordinary creativity that government officials at all levels displayed when they were motivated to prevent the movement of African Americans into white neighborhoods. It wasn’t only the large-scale federal programs of public housing and mortgage finance that created de jure segregation. Hundreds, if not thousands of smaller acts of government contributed. They included petty actions like denial of access to public utilities; determining, once African Americans wanted to build, that their property was, after all, needed for parkland; or discovering that a road leading to African American homes was ‘private.’ They included routing interstate highways to create racial boundaries or to shift the residential placement of African American families. And they included choosing school sites to force families to move to segregated neighborhoods if they wanted education for their children. Taken in isolation, we can easily dismiss such devices as aberrations. But when we consider them as a whole, we can see that they were part of a national system by which state and local government supplemented federal efforts to maintain the status of African Americans as a lower caste, with housing segregation preserving the badges and incidents of slavery.”
- Then there was “state-sanctioned violence,” in which mobs of white people would threaten, assault, vandalize – you name it – the homes of any African Americans who were courageous enough to move into their neighborhoods. Where were the authorities? Either AWOL or supportive of the mobs against the African Americans who simply wanted to purchase and live in a home, like tens of millions of white Americans did routinely.
- Another insidious reason for racial segregation in America is what Rothstein calls “suppressed incomes,” in which “federal and state labor market policies, with undisguised racial intent, depressed African American wages.” Those policies included things like “discriminatory property assessments,” which “left [African Americans] with less disposable income than whites with similar earnings.” Thus: “Racial policy in which government was inextricably involved created income disparities that ensure residential segregation, continuing to this day.”
- Just to focus briefly on federal transportation policy; Rothstein explains how the U.S. government has “invested heavily in highways to connect commuters to their downtown offices but comparatively little in buses, subways, and light rail to put suburban jobs within reach of urban African Americans and to reduce their isolation from the broader community.” [I’d add that, even in places in like the D.C. metro area, in which there’s been heavy investment in light rail systems like Metrorail, service is geared heavily towards serving mostly white, suburban workers (e.g., check out the Silver Line to Tysons and Dulles Airport).]
- In sum, government – and private actors, unions, etc., implicitly or explicitly supported or enabled by the government – have massively stacked the deck against African Americans in this country, not just in terms of housing segregation, but in basically every other way as well. No wonder why “median white household wealth (assets minus liabilities) is about $134,000, while median black household wealth is about $11,000—less than 10 percent as much.”
- What to do about this deplorable situation is the hardest part; Rothstein suggests that “to provide an adequate environment for integration efforts, the United States also needs a full employment policy, minimum wages that return to their historic level and keep up with inflation, and a transportation infrastructure that makes it possible for low-income workers to get to jobs that are available.” Yet right now, under the hard-right, reactionary, racist Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress, we’re going in the exact OPPOSITE direction on all those fronts. It’s completely infuriating, especially when combined with the obliviousness most white Americans have (e.g., 40% of whites “think black people just need to try harder”; WTF????) towards any of this stuff.