Margaret Rozga, poet, civil rights activist and professor emerita of English at UW-Waukesha, writes that anyone who wants to understand the reasons for residential racial segregation should read the “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein, which lays the blame squarely on government policy.
“The Color of Law” is the best book I read in 2017. Historian Richard Rothstein, a Distinguished Fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, presents a clearly written case that profoundly extended and deepened my understanding of unfair housing, that is, residential racial segregation, in the United States.
Rothstein documents thoroughly the ways federal, state and local government policy were complicit in constructing patterns of segregation. When I finished that first reading, I felt everyone had to read this book. It provides the groundwork for deconstructing residential segregation and working toward more inclusive communities.
I often recommend this book in person to friends and in social media to reach a wider audience. My individual reach, however, is limited. I’m happy to say a much wider reach is now in process. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council (MMFHC) and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) initiated a community program to encourage a wide range of groups to read this book. To further its impact, this program will also bring Rothstein to Milwaukee on Oct. 16.
Along with six other people, I am in one of these groups. A friend invited me to join with several mutual friends. We all live within a few miles of each other and meet in each other’s homes. Other groups reading and discussing this book include groups of friends, neighbors and co-workers. In all, according to MMFHC’s Kori Schneider Peragine, 65 people signed up to host groups to read and discuss the book, and already over 300 people have registered to attend Rothstein’s Oct.16 presentation at the Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Cooley Auditorium, 1015 N. 6th St.
In this, my second reading of the book, I continue to find that its detailed examples and easy-to- follow structure further my understanding. Others in the group are reading the book for the first time, and I see among them responses similar to mine. They are shocked to learn this history. One member of our group said of the book’s subtitle, “A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” that you can’t forget what you never knew, and at least in our group, none of us ever knew of the government policies that established patterns of racial segregation.
Among these policies, as Rothstein shows, was the Federal Housing Authority’s policy begun in 1937 to refuse to guarantee mortgages in neighborhoods that included African-Americans. These neighborhoods were considered credit risks, not because of any credit check on the African- Americans living there, but simply because they were there. Red was used in the FHA’s color-coded system of marking credit risk, and thus the origin of the term “redlining.”
I heard the term redlining many times before reading the book, but I thought then that it was a policy that originated with banks and real estate companies, not with the federal government. If the government helped create patterns of segregation, then the government now has an obligation to help deconstruct those patterns.
Actually, the fair housing section of the 1968 Civil Rights Law includes a provision to affirmatively further fair housing. For more than 46 years, though, the provision was not enforced. The HUD initiative in 2015 to affirmatively further fair housing was the first positive step the government took to follow what has been law since 1968.
In light of this history of official governmental non-compliance, HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s decision to delay again enforcement of this provision is especially disturbing. It continues a pattern of governmental complicity in segregation. It cries out for pushback. It helps explain the frustration and even cynicism about the government’s record and intentions among those committed to racial and social justice.
Rothstein’s work helps me understand the implications of redlining. It made mortgages harder to obtain and impossible to obtain without higher interest rates and predatory terms. Consequently, it is harder to build equity in your home and harder to sell it since another family in search of a home also cannot get a mortgage. The only buyers with the cash to buy the devalued property would be slum landlords.
FHA mortgage guarantees made home ownership for white people an investment, a way to build a nest egg. But for African-Americans, automatically excluded from such guarantees, home ownership was not an investment but merely another expense. A major reason for the wealth gap between whites and blacks started here.
Rothstein begins the book with a summary of commonly held misconceptions of how segregated and unequal neighborhoods developed. These misconceptions also explain some of the resistance to government efforts to further fair housing. Highlighting these misconceptions, as his book does, can help lessen resistance to fair housing.
It is not enough, however, for isolated individuals to learn the forgotten, or hidden, facts of the history of government complicity in housing segregation. This history needs to become part of widespread and shared community understanding so we can move forward to the inclusive community we need. The Fair Housing Council and LISC deserve applause for their initiative to develop that community understanding.
To reserve a seat for the free Richard Rothstein presentation, follow this link to the Eventbrite reservation page.