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Richard Rothstein

A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated Americaby Richard Rothstein

We take it for granted today that the persistence of disparities and segregation between whites and blacks in America is the result of persistent white prejudice, perhaps combined with other factors such as a supposed “culture of poverty.” We take it for granted that this pattern exists in spite of government efforts to end it. This is an important point, because as Chief Justice John Roberts said in 2007, the courts could have no role in ending school segregation that resulted only from private choices people make about where to live: where racial imbalance “is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications.” (p. xiv)

Richard Rothstein makes a strong case that Justice Roberts had his facts wrong, that for most of the time since Reconstruction, governments at all levels reflected and reinforced white prejudice against blacks, imposing upon the latter systematic disadvantages that largely explain the disparities and persistent segregation that exist today.

  • New Deal programs in general, reflecting the influence of segregationist Southern Democrats, were rigorously segregated, and African Americans were sometimes entirely excluded. Public housing under the Public Works Administration was always segregated, even in neighborhoods that had no history of it. Projects intended for blacks were disproportionately located in central cities and industrial zones that whites would not consider desirable.
  • Social Security initially excluded occupations dominated by African Americans, such as farm labor and domestic service.
  • Cities across the country used zoning as a tool to exclude lower income people in general, and blacks in particular, from areas of single-family homes. They were in general supported by the courts.
  • From the 1920s, the federal government promoted white home ownership in new suburban developments, and systematically discouraged racial integration in the new developments on grounds that it would undermine the value of the real estate. The Federal Housing Authority, which was set up in 1934 to insure mortgages, explicitly insisted that it would only back projects that were segregated. Effectively, African Americans could not get an FHA mortgage, and banks would not run the risk of a mortgage without FHA backing. Entire generations of middle and working class whites could start building equity in their homes, while blacks in general could only keep renting in urban slums. Levittown and other major developments were bound by FHA and VA stipulations that excluded backs.

Rothstein’s point is that, contrary to John Roberts, the federal government (indeed, government at all levels) has had a substantial and continuing responsibility for perpetuating residential segregation, and thus in perpetuating school segregation.

  • Most deeds in the early 20th century included a clause prohibiting the owner from selling or renting to non-whites. Even after the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that such clauses were unenforceable, the FHA and VA continued to insist on exclusion of blacks, ostensibly because a black influx would threaten property values.
  • Nonprofit institutions such as churches, universities and hospitals regularly promoted segregation in their own neighborhoods and were not penalized by the IRS for so doing.
  • Local governments routinely used their zoning and regulatory authority to block housing that was either integrated or intended exclusively for African Americans. This pattern was tolerated or encouraged by federal authorities and the courts.
  • Mob intimidation and violence against black home-buyers was routinely tolerated or encouraged by local authorities, with little or no federal action to stop it.
  • This comprehensive pattern of government-supported racial exclusion and discrimination has limited educational opportunities for blacks and kept the incomes of most African Americans too low to afford middle class housing. Generations of African Americans have thus been locked into the poor housing and inferior schools of the inner cities. The opportunity for social mobility is much more limited for African Americans than for whites.
  • The civil rights laws and court decisions of the 1950s and 1960s did, finally, end the role of the federal government in reinforcing segregation, and put the government on the side of integration (where it should have been all along under the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution). While public accommodations and voting rights acts have been largely successful, legislative attempts to undo residential and school segregation have had much less success.
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Rothstein’s point is that, contrary to John Roberts, the federal government (indeed, government at all levels) has had a substantial and continuing responsibility for perpetuating residential segregation, and thus in perpetuating school segregation. Since this is manifestly contrary to the provisions of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the Courts and Congress should have the responsibility to put it right. That they were simply reflecting the prejudices of the vast majority of whites, nationwide, is not, for him, an excuse. But he does acknowledge that for effective action to be taken on this front, there must be a change of heart on the part of most whites. He hopes that this book makes a contribution to that end. Good luck with that!

I have been aware for most of my adult life that racism is a pervasive feature of American (white) political culture. I already knew some of this stuff, like the systematic discrimination build into New Deal programs. Yet when I finished this book I felt I had been beaten bloody by the sheer weight of the evidence that, long after slavery, our society and our government worked together, nationwide and not just in the South, to keep the blacks down. Even now, fifty years after the Civil Rights era, the effects are pervasive. Every white person, whether personally prejudiced or not, has benefited by this oppression.

Given that we have all thus benefited, reparations as advocated by Ta-Nehisi Coates might be justified, but I am skeptical that they would suffice to radically change the lives of African Americans. Were there the sort of change of heart that Rothstein hopes for, much would become possible that is now utopian. But I have thought for some time that racism is such a fundamental part of the white political culture of this country that we will never be rid of it.

This book has reinforced my commitment nonetheless to keep struggling against it.

john peeler

John Peeler