Margaret Rozga, poet, civil rights activist and professor emerita of English at UW-Waukesha, writes that many participants in community discussions about Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” have been shocked to learn of the government’s pervasive role in creating segregation.
Already it’s having an impact on Milwaukeeans. Richard Rothstein’s book “The Color of Law” is being read widely throughout the Milwaukee area. At least 60 different groups have signed on to the “Color of Law” Community Read organized and sponsored by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council (MMFHC) and Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC). In the words of Nicole Anderson, a participant in the Department of City Development’s reading group, “Our discussions were super profound.”
The book analyzes how decades of federal, state and local governmental policies helped shape the patterns of segregation we now live with. Rothstein challenges the concept of de facto segregation, that is, segregation resulting from people choosing to live close to others of their same color. Instead, he argues and documents that housing segregation, confinement of African- Americans to certain neighborhoods, was government policy, that is, de jure, by law. As neighborhoods were built and even where neighborhoods were already integrated, government policy intervened to thwart that natural integration, so that nationwide housing segregation has been established and/or maintained by law.
The participants in the book read include informal groups of friends and neighbors, groups of co-workers and colleagues, members of community organizations and drop-in groups at public libraries. The structure of the discussions also varied. The group of staff and AmeriCorps members at the Milwaukee Christian Center took an open informal approach. Patrick Schrank, who organized the group, simply asked where everyone was in the reading, and the conversation flowed from there.
At the Department of City Development where three chapters were the focus for each meeting, eight volunteers took turns as discussion facilitators. A group of Bay View and south suburban women generally began with each participant in turn recounting a major impression or point, followed by responses to each other’s observations and then more open discussion. A group meeting at the Milwaukee Turners chose a more formal approach. For each of their three meetings, one or several people wrote up a summary of the chapters to be considered and that served to ground the discussion.
Many readers were shocked to learn of the extensive and pervasive measures that helped construct segregation. They expressed disappointment in school social studies and history curricula that left them so uninformed. Other readers, some of them African-American, said the book reaffirmed what they had always known at least in its general outlines. Paula Mackey, for example, said she has lived within the limitations Rothstein describes, so that was not news, but his book was like getting the official diagnosis; it “brought clarity.”
Once discussions were underway, participants contributed personal experiences. The discussions thus supplemented what Schrank called the book’s policy and “place-centered approach.” Department of City Development participant Sierra Starner-Heffron cited these personal stories as a particular reason she appreciated the discussions. With a master’s degree in Urban Studies from UWM, she already knew much of the information in Rothstein’s book. In the discussions that brought together colleagues from multiple divisions of this large department, these facts took on a personal face in the stories of those who had experienced discrimination. These discussions also gave department members a deeper understanding of their own and each other’s work within this larger picture.
Overall enthusiasm for the book and for the discussions was strong. Some readers were surprised to learn that the 1968 Fair Housing Act required communities receiving federal funds to remedy segregated conditions, a provision never enforced. Many of those participating plan to attend Rothstein’s presentation at MATC, 1015 North 6th St., 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 16.
Art Heitzer from the Milwaukee Turners group would like to see a public showing of the film “Anne Braden: Southern Patriot,” whose courageous story Rothstein cites. Several groups have decided to continue to meet for discussions of articles on related topics or for brainstorming ways to work on remedies, the term Rothstein uses to frame consideration of future directions.
A question that lingers for many readers is whether the political will exists to remedy the effects of long-term policies of segregation. This question takes on new urgency, as reader Peggy Serrano pointed out, given the turmoil regarding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and Rothstein’s conclusion emphasizing the role of the Supreme Court.
On the local level, will Milwaukee, the city, and Milwaukee, the metropolitan area, examine current policies and new initiatives for their impact on furthering or deconstructing segregation? If so, when and how? How can individual citizens and groups of concerned citizens participate in ways that draw on their new or renewed understanding of racial injustice nurtured by the book’s careful documentation? These are among the key questions many readers will bring to Rothstein’s presentation and community discussion.
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