San Francisco, California

The Color of Law

I thought I understood racist housing policy in America. I knew about redlining and I knew about how freeways were used to cut portions of cities into ghettos. But I didn’t fully understand the sheer overwhelming scale of segregation or the extent of the pain that this actual conspiracy inflicted on the Black community.

In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein explains precisely how successive American goverments denied Black people housing, how white Americans used homeowner associations to prevent other white people selling their homes to Black folks, how schools were built in areas to deny access to Black people a chance of higher education, and how the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 devastated Black people specifically.

Rothstein lays out how multiple generations of wealth were denied to the Black community by denying government-backed loans after World War II. And this had a devastating effect of creating wealth that might be passed onto their kids because predominately wealth is created with housing. Whilst white Americans emerged from World War II with loans and construction subsidies to build white only neighborhoods which catapulted them out of poverty, Black Americans were denied that financial lifeline.

I think this book taught me something important beyond this tragedy though, and it’s in how we might try to undo segregation which is still an enormous problem today. Rothstein writes:

We might contemplate a remedy like this: Considering that African Americans comprise about 15 percent of the population of the New York metropolitan area, the federal government should purchase the next 15 percent of houses that come up for sale in Levittown at today’s market rates (approximately $350,000). It should then resell the properties to African Americans for $75,000, the price (in today’s dollars) that their grandparents would have paid if permitted to do so.

What I realized here is that a change of heart is not enough to combat racism and to undo the damage we’ve all done; we must learn about policy. And reparations should be made through housing specifically.