Segregated Housing and Redlining in Richard Rothstein's "Color Of Law"

The Redlining of Durham, North Carolina

The Redlining of Durham, North Carolina

About a month or two ago, I was walking down 7th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, It was a lovely day. The sun shone down, but there was a crisp breeze to ease the heat. Spring had just arrived, and tulips and daisies and all sorts of other flowers were starting to bloom.

But as I walked I had a strange moment. I'm not sure why it rarely occurred to me, but I noticed that everyone on the block was white. The only people of color were working at the Chipotle, Starbucks or Just Salad. "What gives?" I thought. In a city that is 43% white, Park Slope was nearly 90% white and overwhelming upper middle class. I saw injustice there, but I couldn't explain why it was injustice or how this segregation was created. But no one else around me seemed to notice. Everyone else was going on about their day. 

I thought about that moment as I read "Color Of Law" by Richard Rothstein. It's required reading for anyone who is interested in why do our neighborhoods look so segregated today, as it unearths recent history that has largely been forgotten. The common view, it seems, is that neighborhoods were not segregated because of anything the state did but by private citizens that wanted to not mix races. This is unequivocally false. 

The U.S. government not only condoned segregated housing, it led the parade. The evidence is too numerous to go over here, but I'd like to point out one glaring example. During the New Deal, the FDR administration created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The FHA helped first-time home buyers by insuring loans so it was easier to borrow. But as discussed here the FHA was also a blunt tool of segregation:

The FHA’s twenty-year loan was a revolution in social policy, bringing homeownership to millions of Americans. But it was also a force for segregation, banning loans to blacks—or even to neighborhoods that contained blacks—on the theory, as the Underwriting Manual explained, that such “adverse influences” threatened property values.

The FHA didn’t segregate America just one loan at a time. By underwriting mass developments, Rothstein writes, it created “entire subdivisions, in many cases entire suburbs, as racially exclusive white suburbs.” None was more celebrated than Levittown, an ingenious solution to the postwar housing shortage—thousands of affordable, mass-produced homes offered to veterans with no down payment. But only the government’s promise to insure the mortgages allowed William Levitt to secure the construction loans. “We are 100 percent dependent on Government,” he said. Among the FHA’s conditions, in Levittown and other mass projects, was that no homes be sold to blacks. By 1950, the FHA and the Veterans Administration insured half of all new mortgages on such terms. If that wasn’t de jure segregation, it’s hard to know what is.


Because blacks could not get home loans in white neighborhoods and because of policies like redlining, African-Americans were often shoved into smaller suburbs or urban areas, often near industrial plants, where the housing was substandard and very hard to come by. To make matters worse, housing was often more expensive in these African-American areas, as real estate brokers knew that blacks choices were limited to very small areas away from whites. And because the supply was low, they could charge more.

Direct policies such as the FHA refusing to give blacks home loans in white neighborhoods created the segregation we see today. It has created the worst ghettos we've seen in Chicago and Baltimore and many other American cities. And it has a direct correlation to school segregation as well, as many cities and towns often moved schools to the segregated portions of a town so that the African-American kids would not mix with the white kids. 

It is all really quite sickening to learn about. But what's more surprising is how little this is actually taught in our schools. How can we ever expect to redress the mistakes of the past, if don't even know what the past is?