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Nonfiction Review: The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein


Title: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
Author: Richard Rothstein
Year published: 2017
Category: Adult fiction (mystery)
Pages: 368 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location: (my 2024 Google Reading map)USA (CA, NY, MI, MO)

SummaryIn this groundbreaking history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation―that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation―the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments―that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.

Through extraordinary revelations and extensive research that Ta-Nehisi Coates has lauded as "brilliant" (The Atlantic), Rothstein comes to chronicle nothing less than an untold story that begins in the 1920s, showing how this process of de jure segregation began with explicit racial zoning, as millions of African Americans moved in a great historical migration from the south to the north.

As Jane Jacobs established in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it was the deeply flawed urban planning of the 1950s that created many of the impoverished neighborhoods we know. Now, Rothstein expands our understanding of this history, showing how government policies led to the creation of officially segregated public housing and the demolition of previously integrated neighborhoods. While urban areas rapidly deteriorated, the great American suburbanization of the post–World War II years was spurred on by federal subsidies for builders on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans. Finally, Rothstein shows how police and prosecutors brutally upheld these standards by supporting violent resistance to black families in white neighborhoods.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited future discrimination but did nothing to reverse residential patterns that had become deeply embedded. Yet recent outbursts of violence in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and Minneapolis show us precisely how the legacy of these earlier eras contributes to persistent racial unrest. “The American landscape will never look the same to readers of this important book” (Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund), as Rothstein’s invaluable examination shows that only by relearning this history can we finally pave the way for the nation to remedy its unconstitutional past.

Review: I have been meaning to read this book for a long time and am so glad I finally got around to it. I'll confess to doing a lot of skimming as I found the book repetative.

This is such an important book; it shows how official entities in the United States have purposefully and willfully created housing segregation, gone against Constitutional law, and enforced local actions to keep Black Americans from living in white areas. Of course, barring certain groups from suburban and white neighborhoods brings with it numerous other restrictions by default: overcrowded and poorer schools; less upward economic mobility; and food deserts. Well, he doesn't talk about this, but it's true.

This is a well-researched and written book though as I said above, I found it a bit repetative. Maybe that's because similar laws and covenants have been implemented in the United States since Reconstruction in the late 1800s. Yes slavery was determined to be illegal in the 1860s, but official entities (and regular people) ensured that Black Americans weren't give the opportunities that White Americans were afforded.

Along the way there were lawsuits and families who tried to break those (literal) color barriers with little success. And, as we all know, if the generations that came before you were denied opportunity, it means the current folks will have a tougher time. It's depressing, but so important for people in this country to know why things are the way they are. And, as the author points out, our US History textbooks certainly don't cover this information and when they do mention housing, they "forget" to mention the issues raised in this book.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Literary Escapes--MI, MO

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