The Color of Law Summary Handout

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“The Color of Law is one of those rare books that will be discussed

and debated for many decades. Based on careful analyses of multiple

historical documents, Rothstein has presented what I consider to be the

most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state and local

governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation.”

—William Julius Wilson, author of The Truly Disadvantaged

“Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law offers an original and insightful

explanation of how government policy in the United States intentionally

promoted and enforced residential racial segregation. …[H]is argument,

which calls for a fundamental reexamination of American constitutional

law, is that the Supreme Court has failed for decades to understand the

extent to which residential racial segregation in our nation is not the

result of private decisions…, but is the direct product of unconstitutional

government action. The implications of his analysis are revolutionary.”

—Geoffrey R. Stone, Professor of Law (and former dean)

at the University of Chicago Law School

“While the road forward is far from clear, there is no better history of this troubled journey than

The Color of Law.”

—David Oshinsky, Professor of History at New York University,

in The New York Times Book Review

“A masterful explication of the single most vexing problem facing black America: the

concentration of the poor and middle class into segregated neighborhoods. Rothstein documents

the deep historical roots and the continuing practices ...that maintain a profoundly un-American

system holding down the nation’s most disadvantaged citizens.”

—Thomas B. Edsall, Opinion Columnist at The New York Times

and author of The Age of Austerity

“Rothstein is brilliant and has the kind of fine understanding of the machinery of government

policy as it relates to housing that I deeply envy.”

—Ta Nehisi Coates, in The Atlantic

The Color of Law documents how American cities, from San Francisco to Boston, became so racially

divided, as federal, state, and local governments systematically imposed residential segregation, with:

• undisguised racial zoning,

• public housing that purposefully segregated previously mixed communities,

• subsidies for builders to create whites-only suburbs,

• tax exemptions for institutions that enforced segregation,

• official support for violent resistance to African Americans in white neighborhoods,

• state licensing of real estate brokers whose code prohibited racial mixing,

• state and federal court orders evicting African Americans who moved to white


• routing of highways to separate African American and white neighborhoods

These policies were supplemented by racially purposeful government programs that depressed African

American incomes, making escape nearly impossible from neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage.

Properties in African American neighborhoods frequently had higher assessed-to-market-value ratios,

resulting in higher property tax payments. The federal government certified unions that excluded African

Americans from membership, denying them full participation in the economic boom that followed World

War II.

Such programs still influence tragedies in places like Ferguson and elsewhere. Scholars have separately

described many of these policies; The Color of Law uniquely brings them together to show how they

interacted to create a powerful system of residential segregation in every metropolitan area.

Under our legal system, it is difficult if not impossible to design effective policies to integrate the

nation, because we are hobbled by the notion that our segregation is “de facto,” arising from private

discrimination, personal choices, and the unintended consequences of economic forces. But once we

understand that our racial landscape has been created and maintained “de jure,” by governmental law

and policy, we can engage in a national conversation to design remedies.

We could, for example, prohibit suburbs from maintaining zoning that prohibits affordable housing, like

modest single family homes, town-houses, or apartments. We could require that all new development be

mixed-income. For lower-income families hoping to move to integrated neighborhoods, we could prohibit

landlords from discriminating against “Section 8” voucher families and adjust voucher administration to

make them affordable in middle-class communities. Such policies are not only feasible, but in the context

of our shameful history, constitutionally required.