Where discrimination lives
In a bizarre coincidence of timing, I finished reading “The Color of Law” on May 25, just three days before the issue of systemic racism reemerged on the national stage. The book reveals, in extraordinary detail, how local, state and federal regulators, throughout the 20th century, economically punished the African American community.
Written and exquisitely researched by Richard Rothstein, the book focuses on the housing market, and the steps that both government and the community at large denied African Americans the right to live where they wished.
Government agencies, local regulators and builders used deed covenants, use restrictions (the book describes how in the 1950s and beyond, homeowners in Levittown, New York, were forbidden to rent or sell to persons “other than members of the Caucasian race”), and rezoning (frequently, areas where African Americans lived were rezoned to permit industrial and toxic wastes, turning these neighborhoods into slums).
There is a general sentiment that the government, at any level, should not be in the business of social engineering, and I would agree. But when governmental bodies spend decades engineering a desired social result – in this case, denying African American housing opportunities available to Caucasians – how does one make good, acknowledge its discriminatory activities and compensate generations of families denied an equal footing?
In some ways, it’s at the heart of the current national trauma – a history of discriminatory practices and policies that still, to this day, are neither fully acknowledged nor addressed. Notes a www.Norton.com book review: “Rothstein shows how police and prosecutors brutally upheld these standards by supporting violent resistance to Black families in White neighborhoods.”
Notes the Economic Policy Institute: “The impact [of these policies] 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 could flourish most successfully.”
Rothstein, in a wide ranging interview, speaks to geography and economics: “We’re not talking about the Deep South at all. We’re talking of the North, the West, the Midwest. African Americans living in rented apartments, prohibited from moving to the suburbs, gained none of that appreciation. The result is that today nationwide, African American incomes on average are about 60 percent of white incomes, but African American wealth is about 5 to 7 percent of White wealth. That enormous difference is almost entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy practiced in the mid-20th century.”
In response to a critical review of his work, Rothstein wrote, “. . . the long-term price is a racial achievement gap in education, due partly to concentrating the most disadvantaged Black children in single schools; health disparities — African Americans have shorter life expectancies and greater rates of heart disease because so many live in more polluted and more stressful neighborhoods; and disparate mass incarceration rates when we settle so many young black men in neighborhoods without access to good jobs.”
It’s time. No, it’s long past time.