Many people argue that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are segregated, and neighborhoods are segregated because most people choose to live with “their own kind.”
The first part of that statement may contain some truth, but the second part is mostly a myth, as Richard Rothstein explains in his recent book “The Color of Law.” Government policies at the national, state and local level created or strengthened housing segregation that persists today.
And because segregation resulted from law, called de jure, and not by choice, it violates the U.S. Constitution, argues Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute.
“If I am right that we continue to have de jure segregation,” he writes, “then desegregation is not just a desirable policy; it is a constitutional as well as a moral obligation that we are required to fulfill.”
In a sense, “The Color of Law” is a rebuttal to two key Supreme Court decisions. In one, the court ruled in 1974 that suburbs couldn’t be included in a Detroit school desegregation plan; in the other, issued in 2007, it barred voluntary school segregation plans adopted in Louisville and Seattle. In both, the court claimed segregation resulted from private choice, not legal requirements.
Rothstein shows that’s not the case, in those cities and across the U.S. He details two strands of policymaking that contributed to housing segregation: The government built separate public housing developments for black and white residents; and federal agencies excluded African-Americans from subdivisions built with government support.
Local governments also played a role, with cities adopting racially restrictive zoning maps in the early 1900s. Supreme Court decisions found strict racial zoning to be unconstitutional, but local authorities made creative use of zoning policies to keep neighborhoods segregated, Rothstein writes.
Today, most people think of public housing as government housing for poor people who can’t afford market rents. But the first public housing programs, according to “The Color of Law,” were a response to severe housing shortages in the Great Depression and a need for worker housing during World War II.
The initial developments were built for middle- and working-class tenants, and rents often were not subsidized. But they were segregated, even though some were in areas that had been racially mixed. The government built separate developments for blacks and whites in part because New Deal officials favored segregation and in part because Jim Crow policies were required to win support from southern Democrats in Congress.
Meanwhile, government and industry programs encouraged home ownership, but only for white families. The Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration included racial restrictions in their guidelines for housing loans. After World War II, “mass-production builders created entire suburbs with the FHA- or VA-imposed condition that these suburbs be all white.”
White families bought affordable homes in places like New York’s Levittown, where the typical mid-century house now is worth $350,000, while black families were locked out and had few chances to build equity. That fact, Rothstein argues, helps explain the nation’s racial “wealth gap,” in which the average white household has 12 times the assets of the average black household.
Today it’s common to hear even liberal public officials say that housing segregation – and therefore school segregation – is simply a fact of life and nothing can be done about it. But it’s a fact that was created by government decisions and that continues to benefit one group of citizens over another.
As Rothstein write, “‘Let bygones by bygones’ is not a legitimate approach if we wish to call ourselves a constitutional democracy.”