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

Color of Law pic 1
Color of Law

The Dallas Examiner

The Civil Rights Movement helped slowly dismantle legal segregation over the years, from restaurants to public transportation, proclaimed Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, during a community conversation at the West Dallas Multipurpose Center, Nov. 1.

He maintained, though, that what the movement failed to do was desegregate neighborhoods, even while federal housing laws changed to allow for more home ownership opportunities.

Hosted by Demetria McCain, president of Inclusive Communities Project, the free event was an examination of history and the remaining impact of redlining that began largely with the government’s 1933 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which for years divided cities around the nation, including Dallas and Fort Worth.

Rothstein, a distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and a senior fellow emeritus at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, has written numerous books on education and social reform.

In his latest work, the 79-year-old author and historian turned his eye to the roots of unequal housing and proved to the near standing room-only audience to be well-versed in state and federal rulings involving race in housing and the cumulative effect those decisions have had.

“We no longer have segregated lunch counters or water fountains, but every metropolitan area that I’ve ever lived in … had clearly defined areas that were White or almost all White, and clearly defined areas that were Black or almost all Black. How is it that this great Civil Rights Movement left untouched the biggest segregation of all?” he wondered.

“In one sense, it’s not really hard to understand. It’s harder, much harder, to desegregate neighborhoods than it is to desegregate lunch counters. You desegregate a lunch counter, the next day you can sit anywhere you want at a lunch counter. We desegregate neighborhoods, the next day things don’t look much different.”

An oversimplified answer to the cause of separate neighborhoods is money. Wealth accumulation by White families – before and after desegregation – has outpaced that of Black families, Rothstein argued, making it more difficult for Black Americans to simply live wherever they wanted.

Yet to come to that conclusion, the speaker took a deeper dive into the racist past of the nation. The most common and effective form of segregation of the races involved home financing. Redlining was the practice banks and other lenders used in deciding where home loans would be distributed. On a map, banks would pinpoint the White neighborhoods and the Black neighborhoods. Between the two, a red line was often drawn.

For those African Americans seeking to purchase homes in White or other housing developments on the opposite side of the red line, loans were either brimming with exceptions and excessive requirements or were denied outright.

Even when the practice effectively became illegal with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the phenomenon continued unofficially. The results of redlining can still be felt across the city and the U.S. to this day, McCain remarked.

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.

“And when this riot was all over, the state of Kentucky arrested, tried, convicted and jailed, with a 15-year sentence, the White homeowner for sedition,” he recalled.

Ultimately, if government policy created segregation – as in the case of segregated neighborhoods that continue to exist – that is a civil rights violation.

“And by extension, I think, if it’s a civil rights violation, not only are we permitted to do something about it, we’re obligated to do something about it as American citizens,” Rothstein proposed.

And that something, he said, was for neighbors to unite and continue to press for changes in national and state policies related to fair housing, home loans, and seeing that needed gentrification did not inordinately displace long-time residents of an established community.

For Trinity Hawkins, 17, and one of the younger attendees of the all-ages audience, the forum proved to be both “a normal Thursday night” for her, as well an uplifting event.

“My dad is Jerry Hawkins,” she said, referring to her father’s work as director of the community organization Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation and his inclusion of her in his activism efforts.

“It just inspires me as a person to just want to pursue politics,” Trinity confessed, “… and it makes me want to learn more; it makes me passionate about the things I’m hearing. It makes me want to question these things…”

McCain noted that the goals organized citizens hope for are most attainable when they are tempered with knowledge.

“The only way we can move forward policywise is to make things change, both for people who live in neighborhoods that are inequitable,” she offered, “…as well as making things available outside of those kind of neighborhoods, so people who want to get out of those neighborhoods because they don’t have time to wait – the clock is ticking for them and their children – we’ve got to know the facts.”

“We’ve got to get together and be honest about what has happened, because what has happened has been intentional by the government, so the governmental entities need to be intentional about moving [families] out of those places,” McCain concluded, as she urged community organizations to remain vigilant and continue to welcome new members.

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