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Color of Law: Author/historian discusses how the government segregated America

MIKE McGEE | 12/1/2018, 1:25 p.m.
The Civil Rights Movement helped slowly dismantle legal segregation over the years, from restaurants to public transportation, proclaimed Richard Rothstein, ...
Demetria McCain listens during a community forum she presented, as author Richard Rothstein discusses the negative causes and effects of the U.S. government's decades-long redlining practice, Nov. 1. Mike McGee

Still, the biggest factor in redlining’s existence goes back to the concept of neighborhood segregation itself, a mechanism established by the federal government.

Rothstein made the case that public housing projects, intended for Black and White tenants alike, were the first step to future inequity, since the federal government created them in a racially segregated manner.

Between world wars, many working families had trouble finding affordable housing. The government intervened by creating the housing project system that many Americans are familiar with, erecting multifamily structures in urban regions where jobs and public transportation were. However, some projects were Blacks only; those remaining were Whites only.

In the post-World War II boon years of interstate highways and new business opportunities, affordable housing in the form of single-family homes started to spring up for returning veterans in 1944, under what is commonly called the G.I. Bill.

But by federal law, such housing was only intended for White veterans. In order for the planned communities, called “suburbs”– such as Levittown, Pennsylvania, with more than 17,000 new homes by 1958 – to secure guaranteed bank loans for its purchasers via the guidelines of HOLC, the occupants had to be White.

This created two problems, Rothstein confirmed.

For one, the majority of jobs were no longer concentrated in urban areas – the highway system and car ownership forever changed American labor.

Since African Americans could not live in the new housing, and had historically been paid lower wages than Whites, this left many of them concentrated in now-desegregated housing projects with little access to jobs and almost no personal transportation.

The second problem was that suburban housing helped create wealth for White Americans. The homes they eventually owned generated equity. A house in the 1950s that Blacks and Whites both could have bought for $100,000 became worth $200,000 to $400,000 over the decades, the speaker noted.

Yet, since Black citizens were legally and economically unable to buy such homes, their generated wealth was proportionately smaller. Government segregation led to redlining, which in turn widened the wealth gap.

In addition, aside from residents of aging housing projects leaning disproportionately African American, other efforts towards more fair housing in suburbia also met with uneven results. Of particular note was a situation in the all-White Shively suburb of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1954.

The author discussed a case where a Black navy veteran living and working in the city was looking to move his family to the suburb, “… and nobody would sell a home to him.”

As a workaround of the issue, a White friend bought a home in the area for the Black veteran.

“This was the way in those days African Americans moved to suburban areas,” Rothstein said, reporting that the day the Black family moved in, a mob that was protected by police gathered in front of the residence. The crowd broke the windows of the home, and over the weeks to come the house was shot at and bombed, yet no arrests were made connected to the violence.