The Color of Injustice: Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law

Deborah Garfinkle

New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2017. 345 pages. $17.95.

When Frank Stevenson, the son of a black Baptist minister, left Lake Providence, Louisiana, to move to the city of Richmond in Northern California, he arrived in the Golden State with great expectations. Stevenson had journeyed north on the wave of the Great Migration to escape the bloody legacy of slavery that, for generations, had trapped African Americans in an endless cycle of poverty and despair in the Jim Crow South. Moving to Richmond represented Stevenson’s best chance at finally attaining the American Dream that for black Americans had been so long deferred.

Yet, as The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein’s timely study of “the forgotten history” of de jure segregation in America reveals, instead of finding opportunity and open doors in Richmond, Stevenson ran up against W. E. B. Du Bois’s color line—the network of local, state and federal laws, policies, and regulations that enforced strict codes of racial segregation, even in the most liberal of northern enclaves. Like Michelle Alexander’s excellent book The New Jim Crow, The Color of Law examines the legacy of racism in what many consider post-race America; while Alexander explores the topic through the lens of “mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness,” Rothstein exposes the “de facto segregation myth,” embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike, which suggests that our neighborhoods remain racially segregated some fifty years after the Fair Housing Act—because we simply choose to live, as David Brooks once claimed, surrounded by “people like us.” The truth of what Rothstein calls the “forgotten history of how our government segregated America” is one African Americans can forget only at their peril—the dark side of the American Dream—the zero-sum game of our racial “caste system,” in which African Americans have been systematically robbed of their piece of the American pie through “state-sponsored” discriminatory practices such as restrictive covenants, redlining, block-busting, racial zoning, predatory real estate practices, and dubious uses of eminent domain. Rothstein argues that segregation will continue until we stop being blind about color and honor our “constitutional” and “moral” obligation to grant African Americans the equal protection and opportunity guaranteed them by the Constitution for the sake of our democracy and humanity.

Rothstein shows us the profound human cost that de jure segregation has had on African Americans; each moving case study drives home the myriad ways their lives have been destroyed through our collective refusal to wake up to the truth, even in Northern California. Rothstein’s portrait of the Bay Area belies its current reputation for diversity, tolerance, and liberalism. We learn that prior to World War II, Richmond, like much of the Bay Area, was an exclusively white enclave with an active KKK chapter and restrictive covenants that barred home owners from selling to African Americans. In fact, my husband’s former boss dislodged such a covenant from his basement wall a few years back while renovating his house in Larkspur.

While World War II transformed the Bay Area’s racial landscape, those workers who came north were systematically prevented from living and working wherever they chose. At a time when the government should have actively involved in tearing down barriers to employment and housing, time and again it acted to “preserve” rather than “disrupt” America’s segregated status quo that kept housing artificially plentiful, well-made, and cheap for white buyers and renters. However, for black Americans decent, affordable housing in the private market became increasingly difficult to find. After white flight, fueled by subsidized mortgages, emptied urban centers of its white working and middle classes, African Americans who were forced to rely on poorly maintained and constructed public housing in what became urban ghettos.

The example of the Peninsula Housing Association’s failure to build an integrated development in Palo Alto shows the extent to which the government actively intervened to stymie all efforts at integration. The FHA forced the PHA to make concessions concerning the development’s racial makeup because the agency “would not insure loans to a cooperative that included African American members.” However, even when the PHA capitulated, it was never able to secure enough funding to get the project off the ground. While everyone in the Bay Area knows the line that divides today’s East Palo Alto from Palo Alto and Stanford, few know just exactly whose hand was involved in erecting that racial barrier. Carey McWilliams, California’s housing commissioner back during the War, acknowledged only later that “the federal government [had] in effect been planting the seeds of Jim Crow practices through the region under the guise of ‘respecting local attitudes.” Rothstein, reflecting, on McWilliams’s realization and the opportunities missed writes:

We can only wonder what our urban areas would look like today if, instead of creating segregation where it never or perhaps barely, existed, federal and local governments had pushed in the opposite direction, using public housing as an example of how integrated living could be successful.

If only more of those in power had come to those realizations back then, maybe the racial map of America’s neighborhoods would now be more multihued and equitable. Despite all the legislation that has been enacted to rid our country of the destructive legacy of racism, The Color of Law proves over and over that its hand continues to draw the map of America from sea to shining sea. Despite Martin Luther King Day and Obama, segregation’s wall looms even larger because white America refuses to acknowledge that the driving principle behind where Americans live doesn’t reflect “the content of their character,” but rather the color of their skin.

Rothstein’s study comes at a seminal moment in our nation’s history when our racial present seems even more entrenched and unassailable. As I look out across the San Francisco Bay to the Port of Oakland, I think about the very few remaining African American residents of San Francisco who haven’t been forced out of the city by gentrification, the lack of decent public education and jobs; of worthy African American borrowers barred from the American Dream because their mortgage applications continue to be systemically denied by financial institutions big and small, while less worthy white borrowers get theirs rubber stamped; of the Silicon Valley tech giant Facebook, whose online ad platform prevented African Americans from viewing the job, housing, and credit opportunities offered to its white users. And all of those African Americans our government has easily found housing for behind the bars of detention centers and prisons instead of white picket fences. As I sit here in looking out on my city, historically segregated by the law’s design, I wonder how many more decades or generations it will take for us to cure our blindness to racial injustice so we can live up to the egalitarian ideals of our Constitution and the American Dream. For Dr. King’s expansive vision for America to finally become that shining reality.

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