Segregation in America’s cities didn’t come about accidentally, Richard Rothstein writes in his best-selling book “The Color of Law.”
Residential segregation was an official policy of local and federal governments in the mid-20th century, Rothstein asserts.
Rothstein will visit Clemson University to discuss his book at 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15 in the Lee Hall Auditorium (Lee 2-111). Rothstein will explore how laws and policy decisions of the past promoted discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.
His appearance is sponsored by the Humanities Hub and the Department of City Planning and Real Estate Development. The event is free and open to the public and seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Paul Hyde, the public information coordinator at the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, recently caught up with Rothstein by phone on behalf of the Humanities Hub.
Humanities Hub: You argue in “The Color of Law” that local and federal governments not only tolerated but imposed segregation on communities throughout America.
Richard Rothstein: What the history shows is that segregation in every metropolitan area was created and reinforced and perpetuated by explicit government policy to ensure that African Americans and whites could not live among one another.
Humanities Hub: Were these segregation policies hidden?
Rothstein: The subtitle of my book is “The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” There’s nothing hidden about it. It was all very explicit. The surprising thing is that we’ve all forgotten this history. In the mid-20th century, when the New Deal was continuing these programs, everybody was aware of them. There were protests against them, so this was not hidden.
Humanities Hub: Did these segregation policies start at the local or federal level?
Rothstein: They started with local governments. There was a Supreme Court decision in 1917 that concerned the adoption by a number of cities of zoning ordinances that restricted where African Americans could live. So, it started at a local level.
Humanities Hub: How did the federal government exacerbate the situation?
Rothstein: The Public Works Administration was the first New Deal agency that built public housing and segregated it everywhere, frequently creating segregation where it hadn’t previously existed. After World War II, there was an enormous housing shortage. Then the Federal Housing Administration subsidized whites to move into single-family homes in the suburbs. The builders who were creating suburbs were required by the federal government to include clauses in their deeds prohibiting the resale of homes to African Americans. The Federal Housing Administration would guarantee bank loans for builders only if they committed to building for whites only.
Humanities Hub: Can you give an example?
Rothstein: One of the best-known examples is Levittown [ New York], a development of 17,000 homes. The federal government guaranteed low-interest bank loans for the developer and low-interest mortgages for veterans to buy the homes. But the government made clear that developers receiving incentives must sell to whites only.
Humanities Hub: Were these segregationist policies prevalent in Southern urban areas as well?
Rothstein: There was an Atlanta neighborhood downtown called the Flats, about half white and half black. The Public Works Administration demolished housing there to build a segregated project for whites only. Techwood Homes in Atlanta destroyed a racially mixed neighborhood of 1,600 families and built 600 apartments for whites. In 1937, the National Housing Act was passed and the first project was built in Austin because Lyndon B. Johnson was a promoter of public housing. But they were segregated. There was a project for African Americans, a project for whites and even a project for Mexican Americans in Austin.
Humanities Hub: You make the point that the practice of redlining (designating neighborhoods as off-limits for loans) was a governmental action.
Rothstein: Yes, there is a misconception that redlining was a private activity. The term “redlining” stems from the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation, which was a New Deal agency, developing maps of every metropolitan area in the country with red areas where the government was not to guarantee mortgages. Most of those areas are where African Americans continue to live today. As a result, almost no mortgages were guaranteed or insured in urban areas where African Americans lived. But this was a federal policy, not a bank-initiated policy.
Humanities Hub: How do we see the lingering effects of these policies?
Rothstein: The homes in Levittown, sold to white veterans of World War II, were worth about $100,000 each in inflation-adjusted dollars. Now, the homes in Levittown sell for $400,000 or $500,000 or more. The white families who bought those homes gained $200,000 to $500,000 appreciation of equity and wealth over a few generations. Housing equity is the source of wealth in this country for the middle class. The white families used that equity to send their children to college or subsidize their retirement or take care of medical emergencies. They bequeathed wealth to their own children and grandchildren for down payments on their own homes. African Americans who by federal policy were prohibited from participating in this wealth-generating policy were required to remain as renters in urban areas. The result today is that African-American incomes are 60 percent of white incomes on average and African-American wealth is about 10 percent of white wealth on average. That disparity in income and wealth is entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy that was practiced in the mid-20th century and has never been remedied. That wealth gap is perhaps the main determinant of the ongoing racial inequality we have in this country.
Humanities Hub: Can you talk about some solutions to these historic inequities?
Rothstein: The solutions are easy to imagine but what is difficult is developing the political will to put them in action. We could, for instance, grant subsidies to developers to build housing for low- and moderate-income families in higher-opportunity neighborhoods where there is access to jobs and transportation. There are many policies we can follow but we’re not going to develop that will for solutions as long as we’re paralyzed by this myth of de facto segregation – that segregation happened by accident or by private activity. Segregation came about due to government policy.
The Humanities Hub was created in 2016 with the aim of advancing outreach, scholarship and teaching of the humanities at Clemson University. For further information on speakers and events, visit the Humanities Hub website and Facebook page.
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