The federal government’s housing policies deepened segregation: A response to a critique of The Color of Law

In The Color of Law, I wrote that de facto residential segregation is a myth. The distribution of whites and blacks into separate and unequal neighborhoods in metropolitan areas nationwide was not accidental or merely the product of private activity, but was reinforced, created, and sustained by federal, state, and local policy to a sufficient extent to make these residential patterns a civil rights violation, or de jure segregation. The book describes how the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman administrations required residential segregation in their many housing programs. These two presidencies were the first in American history to invest federal funds in civilian housing.

Until now, reviewers of the book have accepted the book’s extensively documented historical account, as the subtitle summarizes: “a forgotten history of how our government segregated America.”

But now, Richard Walker, director of the Living New Deal, a campaign to promote the legacy of the Roosevelt administration’s public works projects, has written a critique of The Color of Law in the socialist magazine, Jacobin, and I’ve responded.

Walker’s critique is twofold: first, he claims that before 1933 when FDR took office, residential segregation in American cities was so deeply embedded by private activity that any subsequent discriminatory housing actions by government were relatively insignificant and cannot be held responsible for our racially separate landscape; and second, he says that when The Color of Law focuses on the role of government in segregation, it encourages cynicism about the public sector and undermines efforts to press government to take progressive action.

My response to Walker’s review rejects both criticisms and explains why they are flawed. The response was published here today by Jacobin Magazine.