New Book: The Color of Law—A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

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In The Color of Law, EPI research associate 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 level.

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 segregation,” 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 twentieth century de facto paled in comparison to de jure (government-sponsored) segregation.

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 in 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 13th 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 he shows that the government upheld racist policies to maintain the separation of whites and blacks. Leading to concentrated poverty and limited income mobility, segregation and the powder keg which has recently defined Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Milwaukee. 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.

“We cannot address our nation’s firmly embedded racial inequalities unless we first can acknowledge how we got where we are, including the conscious creation of racial residential segregation,” said Lawrence Mishel, President of the Economic Policy Institute.

In addition to his work at EPI, Rothstein is a Fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.