America’s public schools today are more segregated than at any time in the last half century and government housing policies are largely to blame, says author and policy analyst Richard Rothstein.
Rothstein’s new book, “The Color of Law,” documents America’s long history of officially mandated segregation, starting with New Deal-era public housing, worker housing built during World War II and suburban housing built for returning veterans.
“The Color of Law” was inspired by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the use of race to address segregation in schools. The courts concluded that segregation was not de jure (a function of law) but merely de facto (a function of private choices) and therefore a government remedy is not justified.
Citing numerous examples over the last century from across the country, Rothstein persuasively argues that, in fact, housing segregation was driven by official government policy and therefore a government remedy is both justified and warranted.
For example, Levittown in Long Island, one of the first mega-suburban developments in the country with 17,500 homes affordably priced for working families, was built with guaranteed federal loans for the builder and the buyers. However, the home purchase deeds included “racial covenants” that prohibited resale to people of color.
At the time, developer William Levitt insisted that if he sold a house to a Black family, Whites would not buy them anymore and many would move out. As he put it, “We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two.”
In a recent interview, Rothstein disagreed, highlighting the extreme housing shortages after the war. “There would have been 10 willing buyers for every White family that declined to buy for racially prejudiced reasons,” he said.
Court-enforced racial covenants, along with discriminatory real-estate practices like redlining, which thrived with the approval of state real-estate licensing agencies, have also had a deeper and more lasting negative impact.
Because increasing home values are the primary means of wealth-building for most middle-class families, racial covenants have denied African-Americans the chance to build intergenerational wealth. Today, the median wealth of Black families is less than one-tenth the median wealth of White families.
‘We Need a New Civil Rights Movement’
Rothstein concedes that the current political culture makes it unlikely the government will do anything to remedy housing segregation.
“We have a very polarized political environment now, signs of fear, and the rise of White supremacy, all enabled by the president,” he said. He added, “We have a serious legacy from slavery and Jim Crow that has divided the country along racial lines.”
In Rothstein’s view, “People elected Trump in response to Obama. They didn’t like having a Black family in the White House.”
As his book suggests, many of them don’t want Black families living next door either.
So how do we change that?
“We need a new civil rights movement,” Rothstein said, adding, “We lack the political will to enact policies that would remedy segregation.”
“Education policy is housing policy,” Rothstein said, adding that efforts to integrate schools, like busing, have very little chance of success because Black children and White children live too far apart and the political resistance is too strong.
“I support neighborhood schools. Kids shouldn’t be taking long bus rides,” he said.
Rothstein does not view charter schools or magnet schools that can attract students from outside their neighborhoods as a scalable solution to segregation. Most charter schools are located in already segregated communities and, while magnet schools may achieve some diversity, they render the schools they draw from less diverse. That said, there is a small but growing cadre of “diverse-by-design” charter schools.
Easier Said Than Done
Rothstein’s fixes to segregated housing are not complicated even if they are politically challenging. We could pass laws requiring suburban landlords to accept housing vouchers provided to low-income families, forcing them to rent to African-Americans. We could prioritize tax credits to developers willing to build affordable housing in White communities.
Rothstein further suggested that the government could buy market-rate homes in White communities and sell them at below-market prices to African-Americans to make up for the wealth lost by denying Blacks access to communities where home values have increased. This is one way to meet the call for reparations from, among others, Ta-Nehisi Coates, for descendants of slaves denied wealth-building opportunities over the centuries.
Meaningful integration is still possible and exists in some places, Rothstein said, citing Oak Park, Illinois, as an example of a diverse community. In his book, he also writes about Montgomery County, Maryland, which passed inclusionary zoning laws that require low-income and affordable housing in higher-income communities.
Rothstein is also inspired by the current wave of activist movements like Black Lives Matter, the women’s protests, the students marching for gun reform, campaigns for criminal justice reform and removal of Confederate monuments. But he’s not naive.
“We are nowhere near having the kind of civil rights movement that we need, but I’m always hopeful,” he said.