How the U.S. mandated racial segregation

I am old enough to remember when black people were barred from living in the suburbs of American cities, including those in the North and West.

 I attributed this to the racism of middle-class white Americans.  Although backed up by the real estate industry and sometimes enforced by mob violence, I saw it as the total result of the racist attitudes of many, many separate individuals.

Most of my liberal white friends did the same.  It was not, so we thought, de jure segregation, imposed by government as in the South, but de facto segregation, the result of uncounted individual decisions.

Richard Rothstein, in THE COLOR OF LAW: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, showed this isn’t so.  Segregation was imposed by the government, including the federal government.

Much of this is a product of the  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. As Rothstein depicted the New Dealers, a majority of them were unapologetic white racists, with a minority of white liberals mostly too timid (there were a few exceptions, such as Eleanor Roosevelt) to object.

He described in great detail how the New Deal excluded black people.  Even though such policies no longer exist, at least not in such blatant form,  their impact continues into the present day.

According to Rothstein, these policies were illegal.  They violated the 5th, 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution.

Therefore, he wrote, the U.S. government owes compensation to the heirs of those whose rights were violated.  Just how you do this is a hard question, for which I don’t think Rothstein has a good answer.  This said, even though I was brought up to admire FDR, I can’t deny the justice of his indictment.

Rothstein’s focus is on housing policy.  President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal made home ownership a new reality for millions of Americans, but U.S. subsidies for homebuilders and home buyers were conditional on racial segregation.

The government, backed by the real estate industry, insisted on racially restrictive covenants, barring black people from better neighborhoods.  Black people could not get Federal Housing Administration loans to buy houses outside all-black neighborhoods.

The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created in 1933 to rescue homeowners in danger of defaulting on their mortgages.  It purchased existing mortgages and refinanced them so that homeowners could afford the payments.

Payments also amortized the mortgages so that the homeowners built up equity in their homes.  If they sold their homes, they’d have something to keep.

In order to assess the risk. the HOLC hired real estate appraisers to assess risk of default of mortgages.  They created maps covering every city in the U.S., with the safest neighborhoods colored green and the riskiest colored red.  Any neighborhood with an African-American living in it was colored red, even if it was a middle-class family with a good credit rating.

Then in 1934, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Housing Administration, which insured 80 percent of the amount of bank mortgages.  But for a homeowner to be eligible for a mortgage, the home had to be in a non-risky neighborhood.

Not only that.  The FHA would not insure any mortgage for a non-white homeowner in a white neighborhood.

During World War Two, the federal government subsidized public housing projects for war workers.  But the projects were racially segregated, with African-Americans getting proportionately few and less desirable places.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was racially segregated, with blacks getting the less desirable jobs.  The same was true of pubic works projects.

Local governments used zoning laws to impose segregation.  Racially integrated communities were broken up.  Mob violence against black families who moved into all-white neighborhoods was tolerated.

Rothstein described the impact of public policy on particular black families, whose aspirations for a better life where thwarted not just by racist individuals, but by their government.  He gave example after example, which had a cumulative powerful impact.

Although most of these policies either no longer exist or are greatly diminished, their impact lives on.  A high school teacher named Shane Wiegand took it upon himself to study the impact of poor black people in the Rochester, N.Y., area and did a presentation at my church.  He found that poor black people are still concentrated in the neighborhood to which government policy and local realtors once confined them.

Now, it’s not as if African-Americans got nothing from the New Deal.  The overwhelming majority of black voters supported Herbert Hoover for President in 1928 and President Roosevelt for re-election in 1936.

I don’t think they were fools.  I don’t think they would have changed their allegiance if they got nothing from the New Deal.

Also, the New Dealers were no worse than their predecessors and immediate successors.  But what the Roosevelt administration did was especially important because it created powerful new federal institutions could have taken a different direction that they did.

The 5th amendment to the Constitution says that “no person shall be … deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”

The 13th amendment prohibits “slavery or involuntary servitude.”.

The 14th amendment says, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Both the 13th and 14th amendments gave Congress the power to enforce their provisions through appropriate legislation.

Congress then enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which stated that “all persons … shall have the same right … to the full and equal benefit of the law and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens … .”

All this makes enforced segregation unlawful, Rothstein argued, and the heirs of those who were deprived of their rights by government action are entitled to damages.

The damages are not owed by white people as a group to black people as a group.  Rather they are owed by the United States as a continuing corporate entity, just as, for example, Union Carbide was liable for the damages caused by the Bhopal disaster, even though the company’s executives, stockholders and employees at the time of payout are not necessarily the same as those in place during the disaster.

Granted all this.  How do you make things right?  Rothstein’s answer is to engage in social engineering to make the USA what it would have been if federal housing policy hadn’t been racist.

His main idea is to enact various penalties and subsidies that will result in the racial integration of the suburbs.  I see problems with this.

One is that not all African-Americans want to live among white people.  No doubt some black people share Rothstein’s vision of a racially-integrated society and many see living in an affluent majority-white suburb as a way to get access to good public services and good education for their children.  But others, like Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here, find it stressful to live in “a world made for whiteness.”

Rothstein himself mentioned a successful black lawyer friend who prefers to live in a neighborhood with a hairdresser who is familiar with her kind of hair, a grocery that stocks collard greens and a church that is within easy reach.

His answer is that she has a right to live where she chooses, but it would be better if she left her comfort zone and did her part to create a racially integrated world.

Complete racial integration of majority-white suburbs means that, until black Americans attain income parity with white Americans, that black people will be living in areas where most people have higher incomes than they do, and everything is organized to fulfill the needs and desires of the upper income group.

On the other hand, millions of black Americans will still live in big cities.  Racial integration of the suburbs would not help them.  Just as with affirmative action programs, it would mainly benefit those who have a good chance of rising in the world anyway.

To be fair, Rothstein does favor programs to help poor black people, such as fully funding Section 8 rent subsidies for poor people, which I agree with.

On the other hand, he sees putting public housing programs in black neighborhoods as a way of perpetuating segregation.  I wonder how the future tenants feel about this.

I think many low-income people, of whatever race, find life easier in a city, where they can get around without owning a car, rather than marooned in a suburb, where everything is geared to serving the needs and desires people who have more money than they do.

I notice a lot of resistance to “gentrification,” when higher income people move into a lower-income neighborhood and drive up the prices of everything.

Having written all this, I would have no problem living in the kind of society Rothstein wants to bring about.  I live on a pleasant, tree-lined street in the city of Rochester, N.Y., with both black and white neighbors.  I used to get my hair cut in a black-owned barbershop within walking distance of my house.  The barber told me he grew up in my neighborhood, but now lived in the suburbs.

My only point is that if you take on yourself the goal of helping people who are worse off than you are, you should consult them on how they want to be helped.  You shouldn’t assume you know what’s good for them.

The value of Rothstein’s book is in his research.  My questioning of his plan to fix the injustices of the past is not a denial that those injustices exist.  I’ll not soon forget the facts he collected.

I’m left with the same feeling of helplessness as when I finished reading An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.  There are so many wrongs done to so many groups that I don’t see any remedies except in the context of working for justice for everyone—which is not something I can claim to have made a great effort to do.


American Apartheid by Jacqueline Jones for Dissent magazine.

Racism Didn’t Stop at Jim Crow by Samuel R. Bagenstos for Democracy Journal.

COVID-19 and the Color Line by Colin Gordon, Walter Johnson, John Q. Purcell and Jamala Rogers for Boston Review [Added 5/1/2020]




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One Response to “How the U.S. mandated racial segregation”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    “if you take on yourself the goal of helping people who are worse off than you are, you should consult them on how they want to be helped. You shouldn’t assume you know what’s good for them.”

    And that itself is a kind of racism. “You don’t know what you ought to be doing. Let me tell you.” And elitism. And wanna-be authoritarianism.

    How is it any different from a guy telling his hopeless female what she ought to be doing?


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