The Color of Law

I just finished Richard Rothstein’s brilliant—and far from uplifting—book The Color of Law. It’s been getting a lot of favorable press, and rightly so.

The book accepts (for the sake of argument, maybe—Rothstein is always parsimonious in his arguments) the principle that Chief Justice Roberts puts forward when he says that if residential segregation ‘is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications’. It is devoted to showing that, contrary to the prevailing myth that residential segregation (between whites and African Americans) is a product of a private choices it is, in fact, a product of government policies, all the way from the Federal level to the most local level, and this is true in the North as well as the South. Housing segregation in the US is de jure, not de facto. And… it shows just that. He makes his case in careful, meticulous detail, but in unfussy and inviting prose, packed with illuminating stories that illustrate the central claims.

Here are some of the basic mechanisms through which government in some cases reinforced and in other created housing segregation:

  • The Federal Housing Administration, founded in 1934, insured 20-year bank mortgages that covered 80% of purchase price, and were fully amortized. But properties in racially mixed neighborhoods or that were just too close to black neighborhoods were considered too risky to insure. Here’s a quote from the Underwriting 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”
  • Courts systematically upheld and enforced segregationist restrictive covenants (which bound future purchasers of properties to sell on only to same-race buyers, thus ensuring that a housing development would remain white over time).
  • The IRS granted tax-exempt status to organizations such as churches, hospitals, universities, neighborhood associations, and other groups that promoted residential segregation, and regulatory agencies were complicit in the segregationist behaviors of banks and insurance companies they supervised.
  • Until the national highway program was almost complete highways were routinely routed through African-American neighborhoods which were demolished, and their denizens pushed deeper into African-American ghettos.
  • Incredibly he documents how city and county governments throughout the US have extracted disproportionately more tax revenues from African-Americans by systematically over-valuing properties in African-American neighborhoods for real estate tax purposes.
  • He also documents many cases of police and courts refraining from prosecuting threats and violence against African-Americans who dared to purchase properties in white neighborhoods, leading to those African-Americans being driven out of those neighborhoods and, more importantly, creating large disincentives for others not to move in.
  • You don’t need to be told about the widespread practice of drawing and redrawing school attendance boundaries to ensure segregated schools which had effects on house prices and thus accessibility of neighborhoods to those with less means to purchase.

One striking consequence of neighborhood segregation, given that home ownership is the main mechanism of asset-accumulation in the US, is that African-Americans have simply had less opportunity to accumulate, and pass on, assets: it is a striking explanation of why African-Americans and whites with similar incomes do not, nevertheless, have similar levels of wealth. But there are many other familiar costs, both to African Americans and, as Rothstein points out, to the rest of us.

I know we have a lot of jaded leftish readers, who might think ‘well, obviously, that’s no big deal’. But really it is a big deal, and it is worth dwelling on—and learning—the details of the case for the purpose of spreading understanding, and arguing with your friends and neighbors, a group the racial make-up of which is a result of the history he tells. Its an easy, and often gripping, and always thoughful, read.

The book’s not uplifting because it’s not as if there is some straightforward reform we can agitate for, let alone get implemented. Federal subsidies for African-Americans buying homes in previous;y all-white communities are, as he acknowledges, a non-starter. More politically feasible (but still not very feasible) would be banning exclusionary zoning. But even if that were implemented across the country, it would only affect new developments, so integration would take—well, I haven’t worked it out but surely more than a century? Even requiring inclusionary zoning (which is practiced in New Jersey and Massachusetts and many municipalities including the one I live in) would be a slow road. He sensibly suggests increasing the value of section 8 vouchers (and increasing the supply of section 8 vouchers: he amusingly asks what people would think if we had a limited supply of first-come first-served Mortgage Income Deductions), and making the mortgage income deduction and other tax breaks dependent on desegregation efforts. But, as he says in response to Jared Bernstein’s observation that they won’t be coming out of the Trump administration, “they would not have come out of a Clinton administration, either. Until there is a consensus around the reality that we have de jure residential segregation, I see little possibility of effective remedies”.

Helping to forge that consensus is the point of the book. My one practical suggestion, which I plan to act on. If you’re at a college, university, or school which has one of those “all-school-read” programs (ours is imaginatively called “Go Big Read“), suggest The Color of Law for next year.


Originally posted at Crooked Timber.