Erasing the Color Lines.

AuthorKahlenberg, Richard D.
PositionRichard Rothstein and Leah Rothstein's "Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law"

The problem of residential segregation is racial. The best solutions are not.

In 2017, Richard Rothstein published The Color of Law, a stunning indictment of 20th-century American policy makers, Democrats and Republicans alike, who systematically discriminated against Black citizens in order to socially engineer pervasive racial residential segregation--a tragedy that endures to this day.

The book, which I reviewed in the Monthly, amassed considerable evidence about the array of tools white policy makers employed to bring about segregation: racial zoning, racial redlining, and state enforcement of racially restrictive covenants, among others. These government actions--much more than private discrimination or consumer choice--created not only high levels of racial segregation but also the resulting wealth and opportunity gaps between Black and white Americans. If this argument now sounds like conventional wisdom, Rothstein deserves much of the credit for making it so.

The book was a blockbuster, selling almost 1 million copies, and led the broader public generally, and housing policy makers in particular, to engage in a long-overdue reflection about how racism tilted the residential playing field against Black Americans in a way that has never been fully redressed.

The Color of Law was a work of history and did not offer detailed public policy prescriptions. Many readers asked, "What can we do?" Now Rothstein and his daughter, the housing policy expert Leah Rothstein, seek to answer just that question in a new book, Just Action. (Disclosure: I have known Richard Rothstein casually for a quarter century, and he contributed a chapter to a book I edited on educational inequality in 2000.)

What is to be done? The Rothsteins offer several smart ideas, backed up by engaging stories from various parts of the country about how the reforms played out. Unfortunately, however, they also consistently fall into a common trap among elites on the left: assuming that because a problem has a racial origin, the best remedy is not just anti-discrimination policies but also racial ordinances policies (such as those providing special home down payment assistance limited to Black people). These approaches are legally vulnerable and politically unsustainable, and fail to appreciate the changing nature of inequality in America.

The book starts out promisingly enough, by highlighting for readers the imperative of dismantling racial segregation. Residential segregation, the authors argue, is not only a fountainhead of racial inequality, it also helps polarize the country politically by keeping many Black and white Americans from getting to know one another better as neighbors and school classmates. Although it is easier to put a "Black Lives Matter" sign on your lawn than take steps to dismantle segregation, they say, people need to do both if they want to make...

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