The above title is the subtitle of Richard Rothstein’s recent book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright: 2017). It is a book that both fascinated and infuriated me. That is because the myth that most Americans have been fed, especially by the Supreme Court in its school-desegregation rulings, is that most segregation in America is de facto—that is, the result of established housing patterns that were the unintentional product of economic or cultural choices—and therefore legitimate. Opposed to this is de jure segregation—that carried out purposely by government policies, and therefore, illegal. What Richard Rothstein sets out to demonstrate in stunning detail, is the fact that segregation in American housing was, in fact, “a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century” (xii). Basically, de jure from top to bottom. That is to say, federal, state and local governments all unconstitutionally denied to African Americans the right and the means to live in integrated neighborhoods, thus creating the racist system of unequal schools, neighborhoods, suburbs and central cities that we see in the United States to this day. What is perhaps most astonishing is that it was not just the former Confederate states that have been responsible for this, but the most liberal governments of the last century like the Roosevelt administration.
Consider one of the chief culprits in this story, the FHA or Federal Housing Administration created by Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1934 to help solve the housing and banking crisis of that time. What the FHA did was to insure bank mortgages covering 80% of a home’s purchase price, thus removing much of the risk of default from shaky banks. Grand idea. But the FHA required the appraisal of any property it insured, and its “standards included a whites-only requirement” (64), allegedly because it judged that properties in racially-mixed neighborhoods would be too risky to insure. Rothstein cites from the FHA’s Underwriters Manual:
“If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in values” (65).
The same government manual warned appraisers against the “infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups” and against areas where children are “compelled” to attend schools with pupils from “lower level(s) of society,” code for African Americans. Now it should be said that Franklin Roosevelt was under severe constraints to get his New Deal legislation passed, most specifically from southern Democrats who were determined, the Civil War notwithstanding, to maintain segregation in America; so he was forced to tailor New Deal legislation so that it would pass this congressional roadblock. But it is nonetheless stunning to realize that, in spite of the Fourteenth Amendment and several Supreme Court decisions against both public and private laws or covenants imposing racial segregation, the U.S. government created both the FHA and the earlier HOLC (Home Owner’s Loan Corporation) that, in effect, either maintained or created new segregation in the United States. The HOLC, for instance, formed in 1933 to take over existing mortgages subject to foreclosure (as many were in the Depression), and issue new mortgages to save homeowners and banks from ruin, started the practice of assessing “risk” in neighborhoods where it intervened. It used real estate agents to assess these risks, and since these agents had to abide by their ‘national ethics code to maintain segregation,’ the HOLC ended up considering the racial composition of all neighborhoods, and thereby created the “color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the nation,” with “safe” neighborhoods colored green, and “risky” neighborhoods colored red. Again, “risky” and “red” are clear codes for “Black,” leading directly to the practice of “redlining” that has persisted to this day.
Rothstein provides endless examples of how this government-sponsored segregation worked in practice. To begin with, it should be noted that in the post-war years, both the FHA and the VA (Veteran’s Administration) were insuring fully “half of all new mortgages nationwide,” so their influence was huge. Consider a 1958 case, in my former Berkeley neighborhood, the Elmwood, where a teacher named Gerald Cohn purchased a house with an FHA-guaranteed mortgage; but since he wasn’t quite ready to move in, he rented it to a fellow teacher, Alfred Simmons, who was black. This so alarmed the chief of police, that he inquired “how Mr. Simmons had managed to get into this all-white community” (66) and notified the FBI. Though the FBI and the US Attorney refused to prosecute (perhaps because they understood the Constitution), the FHA was not so kind; it blacklisted Mr. Cohn, informing him that “he would be denied the benefits of participation in the FHA insurance program” ever again. For this was clear FHA policy: no mortgage guarantees to African Americans or even to whites who tried to rent or sell to African Americans. When we consider another case, involving the iconic suburban development called Levittown on Long Island, we can see what this meant. Vince Mereday was a U.S. Navy veteran of WWII, honorably discharged. Working after the war for his uncle Robert who had a contract to deliver building materials to Levittown but couldn’t buy there, Vince decided, as a Black veteran with a solid job, to try his luck in buying a Levittown home. Veterans who bought in this way could buy a three-bedroom home for $8,000, with no money down, thanks to the low-interest VA and FHA-guaranteed loans. But there were racist restrictions in these government programs: no insured mortgages for developments that included any African Americans. Indeed, developers could not even get loans to begin developments until they assured banks that their new suburbs would be racially segregated. Unsurprisingly, Vince Mereday was turned down, and had to settle for an alternative: a home in nearby Lakeview, an all-black suburb near Levittown. It cost him, like all African Americans deprived of FHA loans; for he had to make a large down payment, get an uninsured mortgage from a bank, and that meant a far higher interest rate and monthly payment. This became a pattern nationwide, not least in the suburban subdivisions that, after the war, completely changed the American landscape. Entire suburbs throughout the nation, thanks to FHA requirements, became racially-exclusive white enclaves. Indeed, Rothstein shows how “the growth of California and the West in the decades following World War II was financed on a racially-restricted basis by the federal government” (73). Developments in Milpitas CA, Westlake south of San Francisco, Lakewood south of Los Angeles and Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley were all FHA-guaranteed whites-only projects. And where, as outside of St. Louis, a developer did create a subdivision for African Americans, he could not get FHA financing. The result was that
the construction was shoddier and the house design skimpier than in St. Ann (the developer’s previous all-white project guaranteed by FHA). Because potential buyers were denied FHA or VA mortgages, many homes were rented (73-4).
And, as Rothstein explains elsewhere, having to scramble to make rent or mortgage payments, many African Americans resorted to renting out rooms or crowding more family members into homes, thus creating conditions that led to deterioration—for which they were and still are, routinely blamed. In summary, the federal government’s programs designed to help Americans become homeowners, specifically applied only to whites, and this, in turn, “spurred the suburbanization of every metropolitan area by guaranteeing bank loans to mass-production builders who would create all-white subdivisions that came to ring American cities” (75), leaving inner city neighborhoods to deteriorate. In response, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights came to this conclusion:
the “housing industry, aided and abetted by Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing…Government and private industry came together to create a system of racial segregation” (75).
Unfortunately, and infuriatingly, this was only the beginning of a continuing, and still-existing system of racial segregation in the United States of America. Rothstein’s book is full of more details—zoning laws that forced industries, often polluting industries, to settle in African American neighborhoods, literally creating unhealthy slums; routing interstate highways to create racial boundaries or condemn African American neighborhoods altogether; turning a blind eye to racist mobs rioting in response to attempts by African Americans to buy into segregated neighborhoods (in one instance in a Louisville KY suburb, there were cross burnings and bombings but no indictments of the rioters until a grand jury indicted the sellers, Carl and Ann Braden, for “conspiring to stir up racial conflict by selling the house to African Americans” and sentenced Mr. Braden to fifteen years in prison for his “crime,” until he won release on appeal), and using the tax code to add to the already-overwhelming burden African Americans had to face in trying to own a home. It is a story that casts in an entirely new light upon the constant criticisms of deteriorating and high-crime neighborhoods (recall the racist remarks candidate Donald Trump made about inner-city slums), because what it demonstrates is that these “deplorable conditions” were essentially created by government fiat and business policies (such as private covenants that excluded sales to African Americans). When one adds the concerted legal maneuvering to deprive African Americans of anything approaching the job opportunities available to whites (the minimum wage laws were deliberately created [again, at the behest of southern Democrats] to exclude jobs in agriculture and domestic service-- jobs typically held by African Americans), one begins to wonder how any person of color ever manages to survive at all.
Let me cite one more case from Rothstein’s book, this one involving the Techwood Homes in Atlanta, opened in 1935. This was a project of the Public Works Administration (PWA), which, despite its good intentions, “segregated projects even where there was no previous pattern of segregation” (21). Amazingly, the head of the new PWA was Harold Ickes, a former president of the Chicago branch of the NAACP. Nonetheless, though he ensured that the PWA did build publicly-financed homes for African Americans, he maintained segregation as the PWA's dominant mode (of 47 projects, 17 were for African Americans, while 21 were for whites only). In Atlanta, this meant that the Techwood Homes, built on “land that was cleared by demolishing the Flats, a low-income integrated neighborhood adjacent to downtown that had included 1600 families, nearly one-third of whom were African American” (22), became a project with 604 units for white families only. This was bad enough. But what the PWA project did was to force low-income African American families out of the formerly-integrated Flats into the only places they were allowed: overcrowded “neighborhoods where African American were already living.” This meant doubling up with relatives or renting rooms made available by other African Americans subdividing their houses. Rothstein summarizes the effect of this program ostensibly meant to alleviate inadequate housing for lower and middle-income families:
A result of the government program, therefore, was the increased population density that turned the African American neighborhoods into slums (22).
Think about it: the federal government’s program not only turned what had been an integrated neighborhood into a whites-only project, but, as a direct result of its efforts, made existing African American neighborhoods worse, turning them into slums.
Such is the legacy of racism and segregation in the United States of America. It is a tale that, despite making one ashamed of being American, should be studied by everyone, not least the allegedly well-informed members of our Supreme Court, our Congress, our White House, and certainly, the children in all of our schools.