Why segregated neighborhoods persist: the long historical reach of racial housing policy.

Author:Kahlenberg, Richard D.
Position:The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America - Book review

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

by Richard Rothstein

Liveright Publishing, 368 pp.

The major unfinished business of the civil rights movement, writes Richard Rothstein in his powerful new book, The Color of Law, is housing. Over the past fifty years, we've made considerable progress reducing discrimination in restaurants, hotels, transportation, voting, and employment, he writes, but residential segregation remains relatively high.

A half century after the Kerner Commission found that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal," African Americans are much more likely than whites of similar incomes to live in poor neighborhoods. This is tragic, Rothstein notes, because where you live implicates so much else in life--access to good schools, transportation, employment, and wealth.

Why have we made so much less progress on housing than on other frontiers of the civil rights movement? Perhaps biased whites don't want to live in neighborhoods where black representation rises above a modest threshold, while middle-class blacks have an understandable desire to be where they are not a small minority and don't have to face discrimination from whites.

But these phenomena are rooted in something deeper, Rothstein suggests: a powerful legacy of deliberate government action that has still not been remedied. Much of what we call de facto segregation, he argues, is the result of "a century of social engineering on the part of federal, state and local governments that enacted policies to keep African Americans separate and subordinate." The inheritance today is continued racial distrust.

Rothstein, a research associate at the liberal Economic Policy Institute and former education columnist for the New York Times, has produced a searing indictment of racially segregating policies, enacted, as he notes, by otherwise liberal presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. While not groundbreaking for experts familiar with this history, The Color of Law is a story particularly well told and should help educate a younger generation of Americans. (Disclosure: I have known Rothstein casually for almost two decades, and he contributed a chapter to a book I edited on educational inequality in 2000.)

Residential areas were comparatively integrated in the nineteenth century, Rothstein says, until a set of deliberate acts to segregate began in earnest in the early...

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