The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
In The Color of Law (published by Liveright in May 2017), Richard Rothstein argues with exacting precision and fascinating insight how segregation in America—the incessant kind that continues to dog our major cities and has contributed to so much recent social strife—is the byproduct of explicit government policies at the local, state, and federal levels.
Rothstein was a panelist on an EPI webinar, July 9, 2020, discussing his book and Reconstruction 2020: Valuing Black Lives and Economic Opportunities for All. Click here to see watch the webinar.
The Color of Law was designated one of ten finalists on the National Book Awards’ long list for the best nonfiction book of 2017.
- Richard Rothstein discusses The Color of Law on Fresh Air
- Richard Rothstein in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates
To scholars and social critics, the racial segregation of our neighborhoods has long been viewed as a manifestation of unscrupulous real estate agents, unethical mortgage lenders, and exclusionary covenants working outside the law. This is what is commonly known as “de facto segregation,” practices that were the outcome of private activity, not law or explicit public policy. Yet, as Rothstein breaks down in case after case, private activity could not have imposed segregation without explicit government policies (de jure segregation) designed to ensure the separation of African Americans from whites.
A former columnist for the New York Times and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, as well as a Fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Rothstein has spent years documenting the evidence that government not merely ignored discriminatory practices in the residential sphere, but promoted them. The impact has been devastating for generations of African-Americans who were denied the right to live where they wanted to live, and raise and school their children where they could flourish most successfully.
While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 provided modest enforcement to prevent future discrimination, it did nothing to reverse or undo a century’s worth of state-sanctioned violations of the Bill of Rights, particularly the Thirteenth Amendment which banned treating former slaves as second-class citizens. So the structural conditions established by 20th century federal policy endure to this day.
At every step of the way, Rothstein demonstrates, the government and our courts upheld racist policies to maintain the separation of whites and blacks—leading to the powder keg that has defined Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Chicago. The Color of Law is not a tale of Red versus Blue states. It is sadly the story of America in all of its municipalities, large and small, liberal and reactionary.
As William Julius Wilson has stated: “The Color of Law is one of those rare books that will be discussed and debated for many decades.”
What readers of The Color of Law have written:
“Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is one of those rare books that will be discussed and debated for many decades. Based on careful analyses of multiple historical documents, Rothstein has presented what I consider to be the most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state and local governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation.” (William Julius Wilson, author of The Truly Disadvantaged)
“Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law offers an original and insightful explanation of how government policy in the United States intentionally promoted and enforced residential racial segregation. The central premise of his argument, which calls for a fundamental reexamination of American constitutional law, is that the Supreme Court has failed for decades to understand the extent to which residential racial segregation in our nation is not the result of private decisions by private individuals, but is the direct product of unconstitutional government action. The implications of his analysis are revolutionary.” (Geoffrey R. Stone, author of Sex and the Constitution)
“A masterful explication of the single most vexing problem facing black America: the concentration of the poor and middle class into segregated neighborhoods. Rothstein documents the deep historical roots and the continuing practices in law and social custom that maintain a profoundly un-American system holding down the nation’s most disadvantaged citizens.” (Thomas B. Edsall, author of The Age of Austerity)
“Through meticulous research and powerful human stories, Richard Rothstein reveals a history of racism hiding in plain sight and compels us to confront the consequences of the intentional, decades-long governmental policies that created a segregated America. The American landscape will never look the same to readers of this important book.” (Sherrilyn A. Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund)
“Racial segregation does not just happen; it is made. Written with a spatial imagination, this exacting and exigent book traces how public policies across a wide spectrum―including discriminatory zoning, taxation, subsidies, and explicit redlining―have shaped the racial fracturing of America. At once analytical and passionate, The Color of Law discloses why segregation has persisted, even deepened, in the post–civil rights era, and thoughtfully proposes how remedies might be pursued. A must-read.” (Ira Katznelson, author of the Bancroft Prize–winning Fear Itself)
“This wonderful, important book could not be more timely. It shows how federal, state, and local government housing policies made the United States two societies, separate and unequal, and used public power to impose unfair, profoundly damaging injuries on African Americans. The book is filled with history that’s been deliberately buried even as its tragic consequences make headlines in Ferguson, Tulsa, Dallas, Staten Island, Charleston―and throughout the country. With its clarity and breadth, the book is literally a page-turner: once one begins on this journey with Richard Rothstein, one is not likely to stop before the conclusion, with a determination that the injustices described must be redressed fully and immediately.” (Florence Roisman, William F. Harvey Professor of Law, Indiana University)