The Color of Law

From HousingWiki

Richard Rothstein. The Color of Law: A forgotten history of hour our government segregated America. (2017). 



The following summary is from the Economic Policy Institute, Washington DC, where the Richard Rothstein, the author is a fellow: 

"In The Color of Law (published by Liveright in May 2017), Richard Rothstein argues with exacting precision and fascinating insight how segregation in America—the incessant kind that continues to dog our major cities and has contributed to so much recent social strife—is the byproduct of explicit government policies at the local, state, and federal levels.

"To scholars and social critics, racism in our neighborhoods has long been viewed as a manifestation of unscrupulous real estate agents, unethical mortgage lenders, and exclusionary covenants working outside the law. This is what is commonly known as “de facto segregated,” practices that were the outcome of private, not legal or public policy, means. Yet, as Rothstein breaks down in case after case, until the last quarter of the 20th century de facto paled in comparison with de jure (government-sponsored) segregation.

"A former columnist for the New York Times and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, as well as a Fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Rothstein has spent years documenting the evidence that government not merely ignored discriminatory practices in the residential sphere, but promoted them. The impact has been devastating for generations of African-Americans who were denied the right to live where they wanted to live, and raise and school their children where they thought best.

"While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 provided modest enforcement to prevent future discrimination, it did nothing to reverse or undo a century’s worth of state-sanctioned violations of the Bill of Rights, particularly the Thirteenth Amendment which banned treating former slaves as second-class citizens. So the structural conditions established by 20th century federal policy endure to this day.

"At every step of the way, Rothstein demonstrates, the government and our courts upheld racist policies to maintain the separation of whites and blacks—leading to the powder keg that has defined Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Chicago. The Color of Law is not a tale of Red versus Blue states. It is sadly the story of America in all of its municipalities, large and small, liberal and reactionary."


Richard Rothstein biography

Richard Rothstein is a research associate and Distinguished Fellow at The Economic Policy Institute, a Senior Fellow at the Haas Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and from 1999 to 2002, he was the national education columnist for the New York Times. Rothstein has written and lectured widely on equity, race, and education. Rothstein is also a contributing editor at The American Prospect, Rothstein's other books, previous to The Color of Law, focus on race and inequity pertaining to education in the United States. Rothstein earned his BA from Harvard University.

Reviews / Critiques / Alternate views

Adina Levin review

"The Color of Law – devastating history, incomplete policy." review on, November 19, 2017.

"Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law is a devastating summary of the many ways that the US government created a society that was racially segregated by law, and as a consequence profoundly unequal in wealth. The account is powerful history, and needed for people to face segregation and inequality. But I’m not sure the focus on constitutional law is the best fulcrum for change.

"While it is true that the segregated living patterns and wealth disparities were definitively created by government policy, there has been a pivot that the book acknowledges but underestimates. The book cites several cases where, governments, stymied by the illegality of segregating by race, turned to economic segregation via zoning."

Dan Immergluck

"The book is great as is your summary. But I think there is room for critique, at least of the take that “it’s all government’s fault” (some of it obviously is). The one that gets closest to this (but doesn’t require a Marxist perspective) that I’ve seen in Destin Jenkin's review (below). 

Destin Jenkins. "Who Segregated America?"

"Rothstein doesn’t convincingly explain why the government remained committed to racial residential segregation for decades. If government was the tool by which segregation was created, who—or what—was the hand that wielded it?

"Curiously, The Color of Law ignores the obvious answer: capitalism. The book’s focus on law and policy shifts attention away from surplus value and patterns of extraction and exploitation, instead of focusing on these dynamics as an integral part of America’s democratic, law-making system.

"we might ask, of both Rakim and Rothstein, what is the ideological work achieved through pinning inequality solely on government?"

David Oshinsky in The New York Times

"One of the great strengths of Rothstein’s account is the sheer weight of evidence he marshals. A research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, he quite simply demolishes the notion that government played a minor role in creating the racial ghettos that plague our suburbs and inner cities. Going back to the late 19th century, he uncovers a policy of de jure segregation in virtually every presidential administration, including those we normally describe as liberal on domestic issues."

"What are the remedies? Here, Rothstein has less to add. A number of his pet ideas have no hope of gaining public acceptance, he readily admits, like withholding mortgage interest and property tax deductions from those living in neighborhoods that actively exclude blacks and the poor, or having the federal government buy a percentage of the houses that come up for sale in Levittown, which would then be resold to African-American buyers for $75,000 — far below their current market value but equal, in today’s dollars, to the original asking price of $7,990. Sadly, there is no easy fix. Though many states place restrictions of some sort on “exclusionary zoning,” a few have gone further to mandate “fair share” requirements for low- and moderate-income suburban housing, with incentives both for developers and local communities — a plan Rothstein favors.

As a call to arms, “The Color of Law” may be difficult for potential allies to embrace. Interracial alliances break down, Rothstein insists, “when whites develop overly intolerant judgments of the unfortunate — from a need to justify their own acceptance of segregation that so obviously conflicts with both their civic ideals and their religious ones.” Supposedly blinded by bigotry or ignorance, they refuse to acknowledge what Rothstein seems to see as self-evident: that the myriad social problems plaguing the inner cities today arise from race discrimination, and race discrimination alone. To dare to challenge this — to speak of individual agency, for example — is akin to flogging the victim. End of discussion.

Rothstein, moreover, rejects the phrase “people of color,” because it lumps African-Americans with groups that didn’t suffer as systematically at government hands — like Asians and Hispanics. (First- and second-generation Mexicans live in segregated neighborhoods by choice, we are assured, not because they are forced to.) While the history of African-Americans is undoubtedly unique, ranking groups by the discrimination they endured may not be the most productive way to proceed."

Oshinsky is a professor of history at New York University.

Richard Walker, in Jacobin, June 2019.


Rothstein's reply to Walker, June 2019. 



Rothstein, Richard (2017). The Color of Law: A forgotten history of hour our government segregated America. (2017).