The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

By failing to recognize that we now live with the severe, enduring effects of de jure segregation, we avoid confronting our constitutional obligation to reverse it. If I am right that we continue to have de jure segregation, then desegregation is not just a desirable policy; it is a constitutional as well as a moral obligation that we are required to fulfill. “Let bygones be bygones” is not a legitimate approach if we wish to call ourselves a constitutional democracy.

The housing subsidy that the federal government gives to middle-class (mostly white) homeowners is an entitlement: any homeowner with enough income to file a detailed tax return can claim a deduction both for property taxes and mortgage insurance. The government does not tell homeowners that only the first few who file can claim the deductions and the rest are out of luck because the money has been used up. But that is how we handle the Section 8 subsidy for lower-income (mostly African American) renters.

The false sense of superiority that segregation fosters in whites contributes to their rejection of policies to integrate American society. The lower achievement of African American children that results from life in a segregated neighborhood adds another impediment to those children’s ability to merge into middle-class workplaces. In these ways, segregation perpetuates itself, and its continued existence makes it ever harder to reverse.

De facto segregation, we tell ourselves, has various causes. When African Americans moved into a neighborhood like Ferguson, a few racially prejudiced white families decided to leave, and then as the number of black families grew, the neighborhood deteriorated, and “white flight” followed. Real estate agents steered whites away from black neighborhoods, and blacks away from white ones. Banks discriminated with “redlining,” refusing to give mortgages to African Americans or extracting unusually severe terms from them with subprime loans. African Americans haven’t generally gotten the educations that would enable them to earn sufficient incomes to live in white suburbs, and, as a result, many remain concentrated in urban neighborhoods. Besides, black families prefer to live with one another. All this has some truth, but it remains a small part of the truth, submerged by a far more important one: until the last quarter of the twentieth century, racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local governments defined where whites and African Americans should live. Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States. The policy was so systematic and forceful that its effects endure to the present time.

Although most African Americans have suffered under this de jure system, they cannot identify, with the specificity a court case requires, the particular point at which they were victimized. For example, many African American World War II veterans did not apply for government-guaranteed mortgages for suburban purchases because they knew that the Veterans Administration would reject them on account of their race, so applications were pointless. Those veterans then did not gain wealth from home equity appreciation as did white veterans, and their descendants could then not inherit that wealth as did white veterans’ descendants.

The following pages will refute this too-comfortable notion, expressed by Justice Kennedy and endorsed by Chief Justice Roberts and his colleagues, that wrongs committed by the state have little causal link to the residential segregation we see around us. The Color of Law demonstrates that racially explicit government policies to segregate our metropolitan areas are not vestiges, were neither subtle nor intangible, and were sufficiently controlling to construct the de jure segregation that is now with us in neighborhoods and hence in schools. The core argument of this book is that African Americans were unconstitutionally denied the means and the right to integration in middle-class neighborhoods, and because this denial was state-sponsored, the nation is obligated to remedy it.

I hesitate to offer suggestions about desegregation policies and remedies because, imprecise and incomplete though they may be, remedies are inconceivable as long as citizens, whatever their political views, continue to accept the myth of de facto segregation. If segregation was created by accident or by undefined private prejudices, it is too easy to believe that it can only be reversed by accident or, in some mysterious way, by changes in people’s hearts. But if we—the public and policy makers—acknowledge that the federal, state, and local governments segregated our metropolitan areas, we may open our minds to considering how those same federal, state, and local governments might adopt equally aggressive policies to desegregate.