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Lessons learned from Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Jessica Hafer Fierro


  • The Color of Law provides interpretation and credible evidence about how our past has informed our present and can be used to shape laws and policies when it comes to matters of housing and the environment.
  • Describes the history of state-sanctioned residential segregation that divided cities and subjected people of color to a legacy of environmental and other harms.
Lessons learned from Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
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“Only if we can develop a broadly shared understanding of our common history will it be practical to consider steps we could take to fulfill our obligations.”

In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein calls upon his readers and American society at large to look at our country’s history of racist practices head-on. With detailed specific examples and carefully tracked source material, Rothstein explores the forgotten depths of multifaceted, often government-led, segregation that laid the foundation for many of the race-based inequities we are grappling with today. As a result, reading The Color of Law seems especially important in an era when there is increasing polarization around how, and indeed whether, to talk about race and its impacts on everything from housing law to environmental law and policy.

Florida Senate Bill 148 (2022), for example, would have filtered history so that schools and businesses would not make people feel “psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.” Such a law obviously would make addressing environmental injustice more complicated. Packed with distressing facts, Rothstein’s work might have been shunted into obscurity under SB 148, and still might be even though the bill was withdrawn March 12, 2022. Time will tell what similar bills come about, as Florida is not alone in such proposals.

The many forms of government-sponsored housing discrimination

“Without our government’s purposeful imposition of racial segregation, the other causes —private prejudice, white flight, real estate steering, bank redlining, income differences, and self-segregation—still would have existed but with far less opportunity for expression. . . . Private discrimination also played a role, but it would have been considerably less effective had it not been embraced and reinforced by government.”

Rothstein argues that African Americans were unconstitutionally denied the means and the right to integrate in middle-class neighborhoods. Through “redlining,” the federal government-created Home Owners’ Loan Corporation used color-coded maps in the 1930s to decide who would receive assistance and low interest rates—regularly rescuing homeowners in white middle-class suburbs while viewing red areas of the map (often African American neighborhoods) as higher risk. The federal government also directly financed growth in California and throughout the West in the decades following WWII on a racially restricted basis by making financial support more readily available to those purchasing new homes in predominantly to exclusively white subdivisions. The Federal Housing Authority similarly allowed racial exclusions in property deeds long after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government could not enforce such clauses.

Though most readers may be familiar with these historic practices, some might find it surprising to learn that they are not all relics of a bygone era. Rothstein documents discriminatory lending practices in the late 1990s and beyond, including practices that resulted in African Americans being three times more likely to accept subprime loans in the early 2000s, and ultimately much more likely to be impacted by the housing bubble collapse in 2008.

Impacts beyond housing

Rothstein further documents how government housing policies ensured and exacerbated broader income discrepancies between White and Black Americans, as differences in home ownership have constrained opportunities for Black Americans to pass on home equity, the main source of wealth for middle-class Americans, to the next generation. “African American families today, whose parents and grandparents were denied participation in the equity-accumulating boom of the 1950s and 1960s, have great difficulty catching up now.” In addition to its impact on inherited wealth, unequal obstacles to generating home equity faced by Black Americans has made it more difficult to plan and pay for college and retirement, and to muster the resources to respond to emergencies.

The impacts of discriminatory housing policies have furthermore had more than financial implications. Being restricted from certain neighborhoods also allowed for the concentration of a variety of harms in areas made available to Black Americans. For example, zoning differences have resulted in higher industrial uses and toxic waste close to African American neighborhoods. As documented in a 2017 report from the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force, African Americans are 75 percent more likely to live near facilities that produce hazardous waste. With the advent of climate change, we are also seeing disproportionate heat island effects in non-White urban neighborhoods, a fact that was recently corroborated by researchers at Portland State University and the Science Museum of Virginia, who found that areas redlined in the early to mid-1900s are now, on average, 5 degrees warmer than non-redlined neighborhoods. Racial discrimination and violence were also more easily concentrated, as demonstrated by the myriad of examples unearthed by Rothstein of police officers and other public servants engaging in discriminatory activities, while superiors encouraged these activities or took inadequate steps to restrain them. Condoning housing discrimination at nearly every level of government further allowed a culture of inequity to permeate and persist within society’s other economic engines. The National Labor Relations Board, for example, did not refuse to certify White-only unions until 1964, at which point racial income inequality was already well-established.

Acknowledging uncomfortable truths

“We like to think of American history as a continuous march of progress towards greater freedom, greater equality, and greater justice. But sometimes we move backward, dramatically so.”

Rothstein tells history like it is, asking us to sit with uncomfortable facts about our nation’s past that, no matter one’s political views, we cannot deny. The Color of Law provides interpretation and a significant amount of credible evidence about how our past has informed our present and can be used to shape laws and policies that right historic wrongs, particularly when it comes to matters of housing and the environment. Hopefully, as more of us read and share The Color of Law, this account can contribute to “broadly shared understanding of our common history,” and perhaps eventually a more equitable society.