American Apartheid

American Apartheid

A Home Owners’ Loan Corporation redlinining map of the Bay Area (Mapping Inequality)

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
by Richard Rothstein
W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, 368 pp.

The United States today is less a nation of citizens equal under the law than a nation of citizens living in unequal zip codes. Where we live is both a cause and effect of individuals’ and households’ wealth, health, and wellbeing—the kinds of jobs we have; the quality of our housing, education, medical insurance, and police and fire protection; crime rates and whether or not our neighbors are incarcerated; and bonds of family and community. An understanding of U.S. housing patterns, then—how they came to be so segregated, and why they remain so—is critical to the way we think about this country’s ideal of democracy and reality of unequal citizenship.

In his compelling new book The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein (a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute) argues that inequality stems from deliberate housing policies on the part of the federal government, and that these policies thus constitute a violation of Constitutional rights. Segregation by race is an extension of slavery and a betrayal of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. Rothstein is not content to provide a detailed examination of the ways public entities have colluded with private interests to keep black people out of white neighborhoods. He argues this is a Constitutional issue and the appropriate remedy is political and judicial action to right past and present wrongs perpetrated by all levels of government.

Conventional wisdom holds that, in the early twenty-first century, residential segregation is the result of the way people have sorted themselves out voluntarily (that is, a de facto system), since the last vestiges of state-sanctioned racial discrimination were essentially outlawed in the late 1960s. However, Rothstein makes the case that segregation is in fact a de jure system—that is, the result of government policies intended to achieve that purpose. Indeed, he argues, the chief architect of our hyper-segregated nation is the federal government, aided and abetted by local and state entities as well as private interests. His book constitutes a legal brief of sorts, meant to educate the legal community and the general public about the active role of government in abridging the rights of former slaves, thereby condemning them and their descendants to second-class citizenship.

Rothstein quotes from the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts in a 2007 school desegregation case, one that prohibited Seattle and Louisville from taking into consideration students’ race in implementing integration. In his decision, Roberts claimed that residential segregation might have resulted from “societal discr...