The Color of Law

A review

When it comes to understanding racial segregation in the United States, there’s a story we sometimes tell in the northern states. That before the Civil Rights era, slavery and Jim Crow laws created income and education inequality between blacks and whites. And that, as a result of Brown v. Board of Education, whites fled urban centers to the suburbs and that this “white flight” reinforced the segregation we experience today.

This story serves two purposes: (1) it helps modern white Americans feel that segregation is not society’s fault–at worst, it was the fault of their racist parents or grandparents; and (2) it reinforces a narrative that segregation is the result of government overreach–that white flight was caused by the civil rights struggle.

In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein confronts this story head on. Although his book is formally framed around the legal question of de jure segregation (i.e., government-sponsored segregation), his ambition is subtly larger. Through the course of the book, Rothstein examines how the federal, state, and local governments systematically fostered—and continues to foster—housing segregation. For example, Rothstein showed that—for decades—federal government programs designed to support homeownership, such as the Fair Housing Act and the VA Home Loans program, encouraged migration from cities, and expressly denied black Americans the mortgages and insurance they would need to buy into the suburbs. Similarly, Rothstein explained how exclusionary zoning practices—public and private—were aimed at keeping black families and white families separate. These are just a few examples; the book has many more.

Cumulatively, Rothstein’s goal is to illustrate that white flight was both real and not the result of Brown or civil-rights era activism. Rather, white flight was the result of a long-standing, government-sponsored program of supporting the means of racial segregation.

The book starts and ends with discussion about the appropriate remedies for state-sponsored segregation. Although some of his recommendations are admittedly politically infeasible in the current environment, some are more palatable, particularly in light of increasing American awareness of continued racial inequality. But the first step is developing a deeper understanding of “the story” of segregation, and our societal obligations. As Rothstein explains in the end:

When we become Americans, we accept not only citizenship’s privileges that we did not earn but also its responsibilities to correct wrongs that we did not commit. It was our government that segregated American neighborhoods, whether we or our ancestors bore witness to it, and it is our government that now must craft remedies.