Uncovering the Government’s Role in the History of U.S. Segregation

I live in Chicago, a city that consistently ranks among the most segregated in the nation. This fact is starkly evident to anyone who makes their lives here – a city where black and white citizens live separately, learn separately, and move through the city separately. It is conceivable to spend the majority of one’s life almost exclusively among others of the same race, or to travel miles within the region before encountering a neighborhood where one’s race is in the minority.

One hundred and fifty-two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which abolished slavery and prohibited discrimination based on race, how are we here? Chicago may be one of the most egregious examples, but it is far from unusual. This fact is clearly demonstrated in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, where author Richard Rothstein details how the U.S. government introduced and reinforced the patterns of racial segregation we see across the United States today.WBScoloroflaw

While the abolition of slavery may seem like a sign of brighter times to come, the United States actually became increasingly less integrated than it had been previously from the late 19th through the mid-20th century, largely due to the actions of our own government. Rothstein’s book is full of stories of African Americans who wanted to live closer to work, apply for a mortgage, move to the suburbs, or simply achieve their dreams of homeownership, but could not due to government policies. Zoning ordinances decreed where African Americans were allowed to live, and permitted industrial and commercial development in black neighborhoods while protecting the residential-only character of white ones. Previously integrated communities were divided by segregated housing projects that were part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives. Strategic school redistricting and the construction of the federal interstate highway system exacerbated the problem. Meanwhile, those who tried to create new, integrated developments were unable to secure funding, faced sudden zoning reclassifications, and had proposals rejected outright by local communities and government entities alike.

While the Fair Housing Act—signed into law 50 years ago this April—prohibited racially-based housing discrimination, the patterns of segregation were already deeply entrenched by the time it was passed. We are still seeing these effects today. Rothstein concludes that segregation is the primary factor in the massive disparities in wealth, education, crime rates, health, and upward mobility between black and white citizens. By the same token, greater integration would provide enumerable benefits; a recent report on the cost of segregation in my city determined that an increase in integration would mean a 30 percent drop in the homicide rate, an $8 billion increase in the region’s gross domestic product, and $6 billion increase in residential property values in Chicago.

In order to remedy our high levels of segregation in the United States, Rothstein argues that it’s critical to understand the government’s large role in creating it. Attributing segregation to the actions of certain individuals absolves everyone else from taking responsibility. Instead, acknowledging our own government’s role makes the issue one of collective responsibility for all U.S. citizens.

There are no easy solutions for dismantling systems that have built up for more than 100 years. Rothstein proposes some remedies in the final chapters of his book, but acknowledges that it will take the actions of many to make a real difference. Those in the real estate industry are in a position to have a big impact as we work toward a more integrated society. Rothstein’s book is an excellent starting point for those who want to learn more about how we got here in the first place.


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The 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act

This review is part of Books in Brief: Lighting the Path to Housing Equality, the Weekly Book Scan’s series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. Learn more about how fair housing makes us stronger at fairhousing.realtor.

Hathaway Hester

Hathaway Hester, MLIS, DAS, is the Archivist and Digital Preservation Librarian at the National Association of REALTORS®. She currently serves as Co-Chair of Professional Development for the Chicago Area Archivists as well as Co-Chair of the Local Arrangements Committee for the 2018 Midwest Archives Conference Annual Meeting.

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