The Color of Law

This is a review of The Color of Law, fairly established as required reading in most American urban planning graduate programs these days.


In the United States, a common viewpoint is that racial discrimination only comes in the form of individual prejudice or bias, as opposed to being something more systemic or pervasive across an entire society. In The Color of Law, author Richard Rothstein builds a convincing case for how the (extremely) racially segregated nature of modern America is actually “de jure” – that is, primarily a result of historical laws and government policies that officially endorsed and legally codified discrimination. He argues that while “de facto” segregation (separation of people based on preferences, societal pressure, or explicit actions by private individuals) certainly existed, it would not have been nearly as effective without the context and significant backing provided by government actions.

The majority of the book is a well-curated collection of stories and documented examples of federal, state, and local government policies specifically aimed to segregate neighborhoods by race. Housing policy is a consistent focus, with a spotlight shone repeatedly on the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), first established in 1934. For example, the FHA’s underwriting manual (which served as the guide to risk on mortgages for banks and other lenders) made assumptions about how the mere presence of African-Americans in a neighborhood would reduce property values and increase mortgage risk. The author couldn’t find any solid research or evidence backing these claims, and in fact cited several counter examples where integrated neighborhoods had experienced increasing property values due to the willingness of African-Americans to spend more to obtain their homes. Regardless, banks generally followed the FHA’s guidance which resulted in white neighborhoods staying white and making it near-impossible for African-Americans to secure loans for homes in those coveted neighborhoods.

Policies reinforcing segregation also played out in public housing, where the Housing Act of 1949 passed without a highly contentious amendment that would have required integration in projects. Hence, the tradition of building segregated public housing continued, even when projects for whites often had vacancies (due to federal assistance in moving whites out to newly constructed suburbs) while projects for African-Americans had long waiting lists. Over time, neglect for those remaining in the inner-city projects combined with the loss of manufacturing jobs resulted in the association of public housing with poverty (i.e., “vertical slums”). After public housing initiatives collapsed due to lack of funding and poor maintenance, African-Americans did not fare much better with the subsequent “Section 8” housing voucher program. The vouchers aimed to distribute people evenly in a wide variety of neighborhoods, but African-Americans could not obtain them as easily as whites.

Zoning ordinances are also discussed at length as an effective tactic that cities used to reinforce segregation. When Ford opened a plant near Milpitas and assigned African-Americans to work there, the town reacted by incorporating and establishing zoning ordinances to ban apartments and only allow single-family houses, guaranteeing unaffordability and effectively blocking potential integration. Other cities zoned for polluting sources (e.g., industrial uses such as automobile junkyards in Los Angeles) near existing “ghettoes”, thus reinforcing the perception that they were dirty. Later on, these areas of concentrated Black communities would be deemed “blighted” and targeted for demolition in the push for “urban renewal” (also referred to as “Negro removal”) and highway construction in the 1950s and 1960s.

The book also discusses the many ways that government policies affected the earning potential and intergenerational wealth of African-American families, as an explanation of why it was so hard for them to grow out of their low-income neighborhoods. From abusive sharecropping practices to unions that did not admit African-Americans to poor funding for schools built specifically for Black communities (e.g., in East Palo Alto) to denials of G.I. Bill benefits, the ability for African-Americans to educate themselves, attain well-paying jobs, and save their wages has been constantly stifled. Of course, the housing policies that made it so difficult for African-American families to obtain mortgages and become homeowners also blocked them from participating in the most lucrative wealth-generation activity in the country. This effect would compound through the generations, leading to the enormous racial wealth gap we see today.


One of the key insights from the book is that disparate outcomes or impact can occur even if all the people involved have no explicit or implicit “racist” intention. For example, a banker might have no opinion on whether a home loan should or should not be approved but would have to reject one if the FHA conditions force them to do so. Some might argue they are being complicit (and certainly there may have been some bankers eager to deny loans to certain people and defer blame to the FHA), but they are mostly just following instructions and guidelines. That being said, the result of their actions did clearly lead to segregation, which is the kind of disparate outcome that we recognize as problematic and in need of correction today. Hence, while motivations around race can be questioned ad infinitum, it’s ultimately more important and productive to focus on the resulting harms.

This question of motives also leads to an uncomfortable train of thought that arises during the course of the book, wherein the reader realizes that the “racist” policies were generally supported by citizens in the era in which they were enacted. The book documents instances where segregation was justified by neighborhood desires (e.g., people felt justified in pushing out others that would harm their property values, or they expressed their fervent belief that different races could not co-exist peacefully). Republicans even added integration into the aforementioned public housing bill amendment as a “poison pill” strategy, guaranteeing it would never be passed. The Roosevelt federal administration was full of staff with prejudiced views that would not be acceptable today, perhaps to gain southern support for their policies. The author recognizes this as a chicken-and-egg situation: private attitudes have influence on government policy, just as government policy affects private attitudes. This was a valuable and profound revelation that provided much needed background context to all the policies discussed throughout the book.

At the same time, this understanding also raised questions about some of the author’s claims regarding the “de jure” segregationist nature of certain actions. For example, the mortgage interest deduction is completely race-blind, though it bakes in existing disparities over generations – so perhaps it was not segregationist at the time of enactment but has become so over time. It is also difficult to prove that higher property tax assessments on Black homes were race-based, as these assessments would tend to overvalue any lower-priced or poorly maintained home. (This would disproportionately affect Black homes, of course, but the policy itself does not seem to exemplify “de jure” racial discrimination.) The stories of companies not giving jobs and benefits to Blacks did seem more race-oriented, but it can be argued that would not count as “de jure” since these are company (not government) decisions. However, regardless of whether these specific examples are officially “de jure” or not, their disparate outcomes are well documented so the overall takeaways from the book still stand.

Looking forward to solutions

I appreciated the extensive exploration into potential next steps for the U.S. federal government as well as society as a whole. The book builds on its primary purpose of convincing readers that “de jure” segregation exists, making a compelling case that reversing this would require equivalently intense and pervasive government policies – i.e., “affirmative” policies designed specifically to undo racial segregation. The author concedes that such policies are unlikely to garner sufficient support until more Americans realize the truth about “de facto” segregation, which could be accelerated with education at a young age (i.e., textbooks).

Concrete short-term ideas such as having government purchasing 15% of homes in Levittown or similar suburbs and selling them at a discount, a ban on exclusionary zoning ordinances, and aiming Section 8 vouchers specifically at non-integrated neighborhoods are quite reasonable. Some of these are already gaining momentum, such as the dissolution of single-family zoning in cities like Minneapolis, Cambridge, Portland, and even Berkeley.

Other proposed ideas seemed more questionable, difficult to implement, or would likely face considerable public backlash. For example, federal subsidies for purchasing homes in white communities might lead to resentful neighbors becoming even more hostile than they are today. Denying the mortgage interest deduction to communities not affirmatively furthering fair housing (as determined by their African-American population) would likely face significant pushback from homeowners and may be challenged in court as an unlawful taking. Finally, the recent defeat of Proposition 16 in California demonstrates that the public may not yet be ready for the return of affirmative action policies in education, despite recent growing interest.

It’s clear that the path to full societal integration is going to be a long and difficult one, but I do not believe that all hope is lost. While the intergenerational effects of segregation and wealth disparity are massive, I can see progress in restoring American class mobility (the “American Dream”) being made every day by passionate advocates, non-profit organizations, and even motivated lawmakers in the highest levels of federal government. Hence, I’m optimistic in the long-term – and I’m glad that books like The Color of Law are helping to accelerate this long arc of history.

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