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- In his book “The Color of Law,” Richard Rothstein demonstrates how segregation has been mandated and enforced in the US through law and policy.
- He argues that segregation is not simply the result of individual prejudices, but of local, state, and federal policies.
- In a conversation with Business Insider, he speaks about why segregation persists and his belief that change is on the horizon.
- Click here to sign up for Business Insider’s “Closing the racial wealth gap” panel on September 25 »
At the Republican National Convention in August, speaker Patricia McCloskey claimed that the opposition wants to “abolish” the suburbs. “By ending single-family home zoning,” she said, “this forced rezoning would bring crime, lawlessness, and low-quality apartments into now-thriving suburban neighborhoods.”
Patricia and her husband, Mark McCloskey, are residents of an exclusive gated community in St. Louis, Missouri called Portland Place. When Black Lives Matter protesters walked down their street this summer towards Mayor Lyda Krewson’s home in the Portland Place neighborhood, the McCloskeys threatened the protesters at gunpoint, with a pistol and a rifle. The video blew up on social media, and the incident led to their invitation to the RNC. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the McCloskeys’ neighborhood is majority white, and much whiter than the city of St. Louis overall.
Business financial make money capital trading Single-family home zoning and neighborhood segregation
Single-family home zoning is one of the ways that housing segregation has been embraced, mandated, and maintained in the United States by federal, state, and local governments. Richard Rothstein, in his book “The Color of Law,” discusses this and other public policies that purposely prevent Black and white Americans from living in integrated neighborhoods to this day.
Rothstein explains that, despite popular belief, housing segregation is not de facto — meaning a process that happens organically as a result of individual prejudice — but a de jure system of zoning and other laws that has barred the majority of Black Americans from owning homes in higher-value white neighborhoods and building wealth. The Fifth, 14th, and, arguably, the 13th Amendments to the Constitution all prohibit this type of de jure segregation (segregation by law and policy), according to Rothstein.
In the US, home ownership is the primary means by which wealth is accumulated then transferred to the next generation. It is the primary reason that, in 2016, according to the Brookings Institution, white families had on average a net worth of $171,000 while Black families had a net worth of $17,150.
“The Color of Law” is a New York Times bestseller and in 2017 was longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. The author is a distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and an emeritus senior fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Currently, he is a senior fellow at the Haas Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. We spoke via telephone about how US housing policy has built and maintained the racial wealth gap.
Business financial make money capital trading A conversation with Richard Rothstein, author of ‘The Color of Law’
Your book, “The Color of Law,” presents the case that housing segregation in the US was purposeful. What was the motivation to isolate African Americans? And how did federal and state governments benefit?
The motivation was to create and maintain segregation of African Americans and whites.
That seems so simplistic.
Well, it doesn’t need to be complicated. If you don’t want Black and white people to live in the same neighborhood, then you make regulations and policies to enforce that intention.
How do contemporary policies maintain segregation?
As I say in “The Color of Law,” one example is property tax assessments. Properties are assessed based on perceived market value. I say perceived because you really don’t know the value of a home until someone buys it.
Homes in white neighborhoods typically appreciate faster than homes in Black neighborhoods. Yet it may take a while before county or city assessors do a re-assessment. During the interval, homeowners in predominantly white neighborhoods have outdated assessed values that are farther below the rising market values of their homes than the assessed values of homeowners in predominantly Black neighborhoods. As a consequence, homeowners in predominantly white neighborhoods pay lower property taxes relative to the market values of their homes than homeowners in predominantly Black neighborhoods pay.
In Chicago and other cities, this excessive tax burden that African Americans bear may lead to them losing their homes if they fall delinquent in their property tax payments, creating an opportunity then for speculators to pay off the delinquent taxes and take possession of the property.
That’s what happened with my mother’s house. She had a tax lien, which lowered the amount of money we inherited from her estate. And if she hadn’t died, the house would have soon been put up for auction.
Then you know. And home equity is the primary way wealth is transferred to the next generation. Chicago isn’t the only place where African Americans are disproportionately dispossessed from their homes following a tax lien.
I watched your 2017 talk at Politics and Prose bookstore with Ta-Nehisi Coates on YouTube. In it, Mr. Coates suggested that a combination of external forces as well as internal resistance is what provides the conditions for systemic change. COVID-19 is definitely a powerful external force. Do you see systemic change on the horizon?
I see change because we’re now having a more accurate and passionate discussion of the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow than ever before in American history. My hope is that this discussion will produce an awareness that housing segregation wasn’t de facto, the accidental result of non-governmental actions in the private economy. That is a myth.
COVID illustrates that once unlawful and unconstitutional policies were implemented to create residential segregation, the consequences are reinforced by a public health crisis. Government-created segregation causes African Americans to live in more crowded conditions than they would were it not for state-sponsored segregation. Segregation also results in disparities in education and policing in Black neighborhoods.
Both COVID-19 and climate change are revealing the enormous public health costs and consequences of housing segregation. Do you see any structural changes on the horizon? Where? In what form are they appearing?
Well, if a few years ago you had told me that Confederate flags and statues commemorating the defenders of slavery would come down all over the country, I would have been shocked. The future is harder to predict than we assume.
But the country has been in discussions about Confederate symbols for years. During the Obama administration, Bree Newsom climbed that pole at South Carolina’s capitol after the Charleston church shooting.
When you consider the hundreds of years in which federal and state governments not only sanctioned slavery and then segregation, but mandated it, in comparison, five or 10 years for change to occur isn’t very long. Don’t get me wrong: I, too, am impatient about the slow pace of change, but I am hopeful, given what is taking place now not only to recognize the history of government-imposed segregation, but to engage in action to make the future different.
In that same talk with Mr. Coates, you described the National Realtors Association rules of the mid-20th century. Some deeds included language that prohibited future resales of homes to African Americans. Would you explain how these practices also enforced housing segregation?
The deeds on some homes have language prohibiting “non-Caucasians” from owning the home, which makes it appear that housing segregation was due to individual actions of racists rather than state and federal government.
But the racial-exclusion clauses in deeds were not only recommended by the federal government, but in some cases required as a condition of Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration subsidies for the creation of all-white suburbs, like Levittown in New York state. And federal and state courts, in violation of their constitutional obligations, enforced those deed clauses by ordering the eviction of African Americans who bought homes where the deeds barred them from doing so.
Though the clauses on those deeds are now unenforceable, some people are looking to modify those documents. That is an expensive and time-consuming process, as well as a whitewashing of history. I suggest that instead a person adds a statement:
“We (your name), owners of the property at (your address) acknowledge that this deed includes an unenforceable, unlawful, and morally repugnant clause excluding African Americans from this neighborhood. We repudiate this clause, are ashamed for our country that many once considered this acceptable, and state that we welcome with enthusiasm and without reservation neighbors of all races and ethnicities.”
As for the National Real Estate Association rules, you know that real estate agents are licensed by the state. And while being licensed by the state does not make someone a state actor, the National Association of Real Estate Boards had a Code of Ethics that African Americans could not be sold a house in a white neighborhood. During most of the 20th century, if a realtor sold a home to a Black family in a white neighborhood, the realtor’s local board would effectively put him or her out of business by denying access to its multiple listing service (MLS). In fact, state licensing agencies did nothing to prevent such abuse.
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That’s another example of how pervasive housing discrimination was and how it was not de facto or individual choices that led to segregation, but rested on federal- and state-sanctioned policies, which violated our Constitution.
This story is part of Business Insider’s “Inside the racial wealth gap” series.
- Read more:
- Civil rights leaders at the head of the NAACP and the National Urban League say Americans get 2 things wrong about the racial wealth gap
- What 3 self-made Black millionaires want Black Americans to know about building wealth
- When homeowners associations were first created, they helped keep Black people out of the neighborhood. They’re still doing it today.
- For Black Americans, college degrees aren’t about catching up — they’re a matter of survival
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