The Color of Law
Richard Rothstein is an academic, historian, and author of “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” Together, Chanda and Richard talk about segregation and its connection to our nation’s disparities, how government policies can reinforce stereotypes, and why understanding our history can help us reconcile our past.
Souphak Kienitz 00:11
You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda, a podcast and event series hosted by Chanda Smith Baker. Today’s guest is Richard Rothstein, a historian, academic and author of “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” Enjoy the show.
Chanda Smith Baker 00:32
What an amazing time that we’re in.
Richard Rothstein 00:35
It’s unbelievable. Yeah.
Chanda Smith Baker 00:36
I am, I’m so concerned about a lot of things, and really pleased to talk with you. I got your… I can’t remember who recommended The Color of Law for me to read. And I read, I was reading it on an airplane. And I was just captivated. There was moments where I was infuriated. And then there was moments that I was tearful. And then I got to a moment of like, I’m reading a policy book, and I’m emotional. Like what is happening right now to me?
Richard Rothstein 01:10
Well, actually, this is a big challenge I’m facing now. Because you know, actually, the book that you’re reading is a history book. And it’s easy to write a history book for a general audience because you just tell stories. But I’m trying now to begin work on the sequel, which would be a policy book and what we do about it. I’m having a great deal of difficulty figuring out how you write a policy book for a general audience. So that’s my struggle right now.
Chanda Smith Baker 01:43
Interesting. And so you see that as kind of the next project for you is… have you been getting feedback on you know…. so that was what has happened, and that is what’s happening. But where do we go from there?
Richard Rothstein 01:56
Well, that’s right. Every I’ve been non-stop running around the country giving lectures about this and quote, some writing I’ve been doing, and the reaction I get from everybody is, what can we do about it? And so what I’ve been doing, I’ve actually done is I’ve gotten together a group of national civil rights leaders, and we’ve created something or are creating something called a national committee to redress segregation. And it will be…. nationalist is leading, it’s not going to be focused on national policy, because my view and all of our views is that there’s no political support or national policy at this point. No, would there be in a Democratic administration, which is another thing. So what we’re focused on doing is creating local civil rights groups in local communities, to take steps to redress segregation. And that’s what I’m trying to do. The book I’m trying to write would be a manual for these local civil rights groups.
Chanda Smith Baker 03:04
And I was watching one of your speaking videos, and you talked about housing as being one of the issues that the civil rights movement did not address and focus on. And when I think historically of the NAACP s and in the Urban Leagues, and such, and maybe even the black churches specifically… But what you’re suggesting in your next work and an establishment of an infrastructure rights move this work forward, is that there’s not an infrastructure currently?
Richard Rothstein 03:40
There are many, many groups that are focused on affordable housing. The affordable housing, nonsegregated housing and office, and in fact, most of the affordable housing that we produce, and we don’t produce anywhere near what we need, is placed more really low-income, minority neighborhoods reinforcing their segregation, because it’s easier.
Chanda Smith Baker 04:08
Yeah. Well, of course, right? So we have NIMBY, not in my backyard.
Richard Rothstein 04:12
That’s right. That’s right. Well, I said the reason I said before this, that we wouldn’t have political support, even in a Democratic administration to do anything about this at this point, until we create a mass movement about it is that the Democratic party today is a coalition of minority and suburban voters. And the suburban, liberal, well-educated voters… The biggest obstacle to interesting segregation, you call the NIMBYs but less so when we create this, these local committees, these local civil rights committees, one of the places we’re going to have to start is in suburban communities. Well, I was just gonna say there are people in these communities who are active they’re tiny minority equal, we’d have to start with them, or nice committees and liberal churches might be a place to start. You know, I’ve, as I said, I’ve gone around the country giving lectures, I’ve given talks about this in these kinds of suburban, all-white, exclusive communities. And there’s an appetite among a tiny minority to redress the segregation that their community said, historically created, but they’re nowhere near powerful enough to affect change. And that’s what we have to organize.
Chanda Smith Baker 05:34
And do you think that part of the reason that they are not equipped to move is because they don’t adequately understand both the history and the role that they are actively playing to keeping it as it is?
Richard Rothstein 05:49
Yes, I think that’s right. I think nobody understands. It’s not nobody. My book has had a big impact. I know other people writing about this recently, as well. But nobody really understands the history, I said that the reaction I get is what we can do about it. That’s the second reaction. The first reaction I get from people is how come I didn’t know about this? I didn’t learn this in high school. In college. Everybody, black and white, has adopted this narrative of de facto segregation. So if something happened for economic reasons, or because prior to bigotry, self choices, non-understanding that the residential segregation that we have in this country is as much a civil rights violation. It’s as unconstitutional as played by the government because the segregation busses, water fountains, or schools are any things we need addressed in the 20th century.
Chanda Smith Baker 06:54
And, you know, I mean, I would encourage anyone listening to go out and read your book, the color of law, can you provide us maybe a snapshot or a summary of what that book details for folks that may not understand our government’s role in creating?
Richard Rothstein 07:13
Yes, certainly, every metropolitan area in this country is residentially segregated. There are clearly defined areas, all white and mostly white. Clearly defined areas are all black or mostly black. The narrative that we have all adopted, the reason that the advocate felt any obligation to do anything about this is we told ourselves that this all happened naturally by accident. It happened because of private bigotry. Homeowners or landlords wouldn’t rent to African Americans, white neighborhoods or actors in the private economy, banks, real estate agents, not governments discriminate how they carry economic activity for maybe because of the same race. Or maybe it’s just an economic result because so many African Americans can’t afford to move to white middle-class neighborhoods. And we give a name to this rationalization, of the state’s de facto segregation. And what my book The Color of Law imposes, shows, that the de facto segregation story is false. It’s not based on historical fact, that’s a rationalization we’ve created to excuse ourselves from addressing the fact that we’re an apartheid society. And if we understood that the segregation was created by government, we would understand that we have an obligation under the Constitution to remedy it, because it’s a civil rights violation. So it’s not a civil rights violation as a civil rights violations that we correctly in the 20th century. Now, the policies that were followed the numerous 20th century to create segregation, racial segregation, and they were so powerful that they still determine the racial boundaries that we have today. For example, the suburbanization of this country, which did not exist before the mid-20th century. It’s a post World War II phenomenon. The suburbanization of this country is engineered for whites only by the federal government, through a policy to move all white working-class families who are living in urban areas, out of those cities, into single-family homes in the suburbs. This was an explicit racial policy. No developer could have built the kinds of suburbs that were created in the 20th century, on their on his or her own. Not possible — not financially possible, no bank would be crazy enough to lend the developer the money to build 10, 15,000 homes in one place. She had no buyers and no prospect of buyers. The only way that these developers and perhaps the most famous of them was Levittown. He said New York City, every metropolitan area in this country. The only way that developers like with it could have built this community of 17,000 homes by going through the Federal Housing Administration, submitting his plans for development, the architectural design of the homes, the construction materials, who’s going to use and a commitment never to sell a home to an African American. But the Federal Housing Administration isn’t required Leavitt and these other developers to place a clause in the deed of every home inhibited resale to African Americans, to African Americans. And with that racial exclusion guarantee, the federal government then guaranteed Levites and these have developers backwards to go ahead and build the developers. The result is that the families and youth were mostly white working class returning war veterans from World War II. Were able to buy these homes very inexpensively. They were 9, $10,000 homes in today’s money, it’s about $100,000. Those homes today in the suburbs all across the country no longer sell for $100,000 They sell for 300, 400, $500,000. In some cases, even a million dollars or more. The white families who bought those homes over the next couple of generations gained wealth, from the appreciation of the value of their homes that use that well to send their children to college. They used it to finance emergencies, if they have any temporary unemployment that you have wealth, you can weather temporary unemployment. If you don’t or are unemployed, you get pushed further down the socio-economic ladder. They used it to bequeath wealth to their children who then have down payments for their own homes. The result of this policy is an African American wealth is now only about 7% of white wealth, family wealth. African American incomes are 60% of whites. So it’s not that they’re equal incomes. But that enormous disparity between a 60% income ratio and the 7% wealth ratio, which persists today is entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy that was practiced in the mid-20th century, and has never been remedied and that we as Americans have never accepted the responsibility to be remedy, because we haven’t distinguisehd it as a constitutional violation. So that… In the book, I go through many of these policies not only FHA subsidies to suburbanization, there were many policies that the federal, state, and local levels that were explicitly designed to assure that blacks and whites could not get ahead in any metropolitan area in the country. We have, as I said, an apartheid system, an unconstitutional system of residential boundaries. We have an obligation that we take on responsibilities as citizens seriously to remedy it.
Chanda Smith Baker 13:17
So as the suburban neighborhoods were being developed, is this also in the 20th century where there was also what we have defined historically as the ghetto… Was also emerging? Or what is kind of the history of the low-income communities that have been defined as ghettos?
Richard Rothstein 13:41
Well, when the federal government subsidized whites only to move out of urban areas into the suburbs, African Americans were left in urban areas. So they were rarely able to get mortgages for homes in urban areas. The result is that they had to double, triple up with relatives in order to be able to buy a home, the communities became overcrowded. Frequently, the only way they can buy the homes was from speculators who sold them homes on contract, which is really just a rent-to-own system. And if they fell behind in the payment, the speculator could seize the home without any equity being left for the homeowner. So when you crowded African Americans into urban areas, you’ve created slum conditions we refer to as a ghetto. These were two comparable or complementary policies, moving whites into single-family homes in the suburbs, concentrating African Americans in urban areas. As you may know, in the 1930s, the federal government who maps the metropolitan area, the large metropolitan areas in the country, coloring red the areas where African Americans, in particular, lived, indicating that these areas are too risky for federal guarantees, for example, FHA mortgages and VA mortgages, so very few were issued to African Americans. African Americans wound up having to pay more for their housing, which was less adequate housing in ghetto areas than whites were paying comparable housing elsewhere.
Chanda Smith Baker 15:29
You know, I often say this and think this, that often when we’re talking about disparities, I do think that from a lack of understanding of historical context and policy, we may minimize those to a set of decisions that a family is making or an individual is making or making. Can you walk through some of the rippling effects of these housing policies? And do you think that that history and that connection explains some of the disparities that we’re experiencing today?
Richard Rothstein 16:02
Well, it explains most of these disparities. Segregation is the underlying cause of so much of the inequality we have in this country. I mentioned just a minute ago, the wealth gap that was created by its explicit federal policy to segregate blacks from whites. Wealth underlies most of a family’s ability to prosper to be upwardly mobile. As I mentioned before, it determines frequently the ability to go to college. It is used to subsidize retirements. It’s an enormous cause of inequality — the wealth gap, but there are other consequences of segregation as well. We spend a lot of time talking about the achievement gap in schools. The achievement gap is primarily responsible, primarily, the achievement gap is primarily attributable to the fact that we concentrate the most disadvantaged, young children and single schools without adequate resources, and where the children come to school, with serious social and economic disadvantages that reinforce each other and make it impossible for them to achieve at the same level as white middle-class children. I used to be a newspaper columnist. As you may know, I remember writing a column once about asthma. African American children, urban areas have asthma at four times the rate of middle-class children, they have four times the rate because they’re living in more polluted neighborhoods with deteriorating buildings with a dusty environment with diesel trucks driving within neighborhoods. If a child has asthma, that child is more likely than children with asthma to be up at night easily. Coming to those schools or drowsy the next day. That sleeplessness or drowsiness predicts lower average achievement to a tiny bit when you add luck with all the other conditions like that, that also predicts lower achievement, not just asthma, but lead poisoning or homelessness or economic insecurity. All of those add up to explain mostly achievement gaps in the achievement campus is primarily not entirely, but primarily the result of racial segregation. Health disparities between African Americans and whites… As we know, African Americans have shorter life expectancies that have great rates of cardiovascular disease could share the responsibility for that is that of being concentrated so many of them, not all, but so many of them being concentrated in less healthy neighborhoods, less access to healthy foods, exposed to all of the causes of pollution I mentioned a minute ago. So racial segregation, residential segregation is a cause of the achievement of the health disparities as well. We spend a lot of time, energy, focus, and we should be focused on mass incarceration. So many young African Americans are disparately incarcerated. That couldn’t happen if we weren’t concentrating on most disadvantaged young men in single neighborhoods where they had less access to jobs or even the transportation to get to those jobs. And I’d say another cause, another result rather, of residential segregation that we have unconstitutionally created and pay a big price, for now, is a very, very dangerous, frightening really, political polarization in this country today, which not entirely but largely tracks racial bias. And how can we ever develop the common national identity it needs to preserve this democracy? With so many African Americans and whites — they’re so far from each other that they have no ability to identify with each other… To empathize with each other… To understand each other’s life experiences. So, I conclude that residential racial segregation is the single biggest social problem that we face in this country. And unless we address this, we’re not going to be able to address any of the consequences in schools with health, with criminal justice, that we suffer from today.
Chanda Smith Baker 20:25
Sure. And, you know, you talked about the racially segregated schools, and this might be a bit of a segue, but I did think it when I was listening, is that I’ve often wondered, our K-12 system seems to be so impacted by all the things that you just mentioned. Yet historically, black colleges and universities are so successful with the same population. How do you explain that?
Richard Rothstein 20:52
Well, every human population has a distribution of outcomes. When we talk about the differences between whites and blacks, we’re not talking about every white and every black being identically different. And so there’s a distribution, the African population is a distribution of the white population. The most highly motivated, African American children can succeed. But what proportion of those who succeed is smaller proportion who succeeds in the white population? So it’s not surprising that African American children who are… Who go to college, and many of them go to historically black colleges and universities that they succeed, but their proportions are not as great, by a far measure, than the proportions of whites are a result of a college education. Well, I was just gonna say that. So you have those the racial segregation, and then it feels like laid over that is class in wealth segregation, perhaps. And so is it also having financially segregated communities impacting this or is it really based on race? Policies are based on race? Yeah? Of course, the you know, we have disadvantaged white families as well, white children as well. White low-income children are much less likely to live in a neighborhood where other children are low income than black low-income children are. And so the… For reasons I described before, black children are more likely to be low-income because of segregation than whites are. It’s not that no children will be… No black children would be low-income if they weren’t segregated. There are white children who have a low income. But the share of them who are low income is by many times greater than the share of white children who are low income because of segregation.
Chanda Smith Baker 23:17
Can you talk a little bit… I think I read or heard you talk about social psychology policies that have shaped the social structure sectors, or the social structure structures in this country. Can you say more about that?
Richard Rothstein 23:30
Well, I don’t know exactly what you were referring to but maybe it’s this — there’s no doubt that white bigotry was a result of our failure to confront the legacies of slavery. Our stereotypes of African Americans was responsible for creating political conditions in which the government unconstitutionally pursued these policies of segregation. So I’m not minimizing the role of white bigotry. But segregation itself creates stereotypes that reinforce the bigotry. So when we concentrated, as we did and still do, the lowest income African Americans in overcrowded neighborhoods with less access to services, less access to good jobs, their neighborhoods become slums. They’re overcrowded. They, because they’re overcrowded, more of their social life goes on in the streets. For example, whites look at these neighborhoods and by the way, they’re also many of these neighborhoods have… Were deprived of adequate public services, garbage collection, sewer sidewalks… Whites look at these neighborhoods and conclude that they’re slums, which they are, and further conclude that African Americans must be slum dwellers. And therefore, the whites don’t want the African Americans moving into our neighborhoods, because they think then their neighborhoods will become slums. So that the psychology, the stereotypes, they’re created by segregation and reinforce existing stereotypes in the negative direction. Whites look at these neighborhoods don’t realize that it’s government policy that creates these slum conditions, not the behaviors, the African Americans themselves. And it happens in the opposite direction as well. As you may know, when you write a book like mine, The Color of Law came out in hardback in 2017, as a paperback came out a year later. And so in that year, I got a lot of correspondence and reactions from people who read the hardcover book. I wrote in the paperback in a section that was added to the end of the paperback edition, about the letter I got from a young African American man from New Orleans who said he grew up in a low-income black neighborhood, looked around and saw that the whites were living in more affluent neighborhoods. He figured that was a natural phenomenon. That’s the way things work. And he said… And then he read my book. And he said, if he had read that book when he was younger, he would have tried harder in high school. Because even if we realized that this was not failure, was not an inherent characteristic of his, that something that was created by government and that he could try to overcome… Well, social psychologists call that stereotype threat that African Americans themselves come to accept the stereotypes that are created by their conditions if they don’t understand the causes of those conditions. So both the stereotypes that whites have of African Americans and the stereotypes that African Americans have of themselves and whites, are the product of these policies or segregation. How did you come to study this? What was that path for you? Well, the path for me was I was a, an education columnist and writer… Was for many years as writing education policy. I came to understand as a result of my study of education policy, that the biggest problem that we face in American public education today is the segregation of students, as I mentioned before. That segregation, I came to understand, was the result of the fact that the schools in which their neighborhoods in which their schools were located was segregated. So I came to believe that neighborhood segregation was an educational problem, as I described. And I began to look into neighborhood segregation really only as a way of addressing the achievement that happens in schools. And the more I got into it, the more I learned about the fact that de facto segregation was a myth. And I began to study it more deeply and the more I studied, the more different policies of federal, state, and local governments were uncovered that created the segregation that we know today. So for me, the path was through educational policy.
Chanda Smith Baker 28:30
As you dug into that research, were you shocked by what you learned and uncovered?
Richard Rothstein 28:36
Yes, I was. I was surprised. I knew a little bit about this. It’s not that nobody writes a book without having an idea that we’re going to come up with something when they do the research. So it’s not like I had no idea about it. But I didn’t I… As a very, very young man, I had worked as a research assistant for the Chicago Urban League on a lawsuit that had been filed in Chicago about the fact that the Chicago City Council and the Chicago Housing Authority had deliberately created public housing projects for African Americans and black neighborhoods and public housing projects for whites and white neighborhoods. So that was in the back of my mind, I knew that as some of this… I had no idea that the policies were so numerous, so systematic, so interrelated, to create an unconstitutional system. So I was shocked about this. I uncovered more and more. But also, and I have to say this, the more I study this, the more hopeful I became. Because so long as we believe that all happened by accident, it’s natural to think it can only unhappen by accident. Once we have the standard, this was all created by policy. The segregation of this country is a conscious, deliberate creation of unconstitutional policy. We can understand and policy can also undo. And I think that having this understanding of the history creates the opportunity to make a kind of progress that we couldn’t make so long as we were blinded by the effect of this. So while I was shocked, the more I learned about it, the more hopeful I became that it can be undone.
Chanda Smith Baker 30:28
And are there any cities or examples in our country that are doing innovative work to help untangle this complicated housing history?
Richard Rothstein 30:38
Yes, there are many, many examples of places that are taking small steps. But they’re all small. They’re not nearly what’s necessary to make a serious dent in the problem. But there are many local programs that are well-intentioned. For example… As you know, we have a program subsidize developers, a federal program to build housing for low-income families who are disproportionately African American and minority. It’s called the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. Typically, developments for those minority families are placed in already low-income segregated neighborhoods, but there are some cities who are making serious efforts to try to get them in higher opportunity neighborhoods. Dallas is one. There are others as well. There’s also a program for low-income African Americans called the section eight voucher program with a subsidy to families to rent apartments. It reinforces segregation because most section eight vouchers are usable only in low-income communities. But there are some cities that are taking big steps to try to help the use of section eight vouchers for higher opportunity communities. Of course, the big obstacle to that is that there are so many high opportunity communities whose zoning laws prohibit the kinds of multi-unit developments that section eight vouchers could be used in. But where they exist… Baltimore would be an example of a very good job of trying to use those vouchers in higher opportunity neighborhoods. Seattle is another one that has expanded along those lines, it’s very successful. At the… That’s for low-income families. For higher-income families, middle-income families, there are programs that provide downpayment assistance for families that could easily make payments, mortgage payments, on a single-family home, but who don’t have the downpayment, to be able to get into it in the first place. Partially because of that wealth gap that we’ve created. So there are many communities in the country that are beginning to create downpayment assistance programs. There are some places and you know this better than I do and I haven’t understood this history… Small steps towards opening up white neighborhoods to minority families in Minneapolis. Sure, you know, you will abolish single-family zoning throughout the city, understanding that single-family zoning reinforces racial segregation. Now, that’s only a very small first step. Abolishing single-family zoning alone is not going to ensure racial desegregation because unless you have inclusionary requirements as well… It’s likely that additional two-family, three-family units will be built to be occupied primarily by people within pay market rates. But it’s a step in the right direction. There are other places… Portland, Oregon has taken a similar step. It’s being debated very furiously in the state of California. Two years in a row now, a bill to abolish single-family zoning in high opportunity areas has been defeated in the state legislature, but the very fact that it’s being debated is a step forward. So there are small steps being taken, but we need much, much more to remedy the situation that we created.
Chanda Smith Baker 34:39
Yeah. And so you mentioned one of the policies and opportunity neighborhoods and the zoning restrictions… If we do nothing, right? If we just move forward and even with some of the things that you just mentioned, could this book be written in 20 years from now, recording the policies right now that are creating the same conditions that you’ve written about?
Richard Rothstein 34:59
Well, certainly if we do nothing, nothing’s going to change. But let me say this. We are now in this country having a more accurate and passionate discussion about the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow than we’ve ever had in history. Say that seriously — ever before in American history. We’ve never had a truth and reconciliation process. We don’t have a formal one now. But there’s a great amount of discussion about slavery, we have white elected southern politicians running around removing statues that commemorate the defenders of slavery. We have many books on the subject. Mine has gotten attention… Michelle Alexander’s about mass incarceration or Bryan Stevenson’s book about the death penalty. So there are many… Matthew Desmond’s book about evictions. All of this discussion is going on now. And I believe that it’s possible that a new civil rights movement can emerge from this discussion, that we can make a serious dent in the problems of segregation. I’m not suggesting it’s going to be easy. But I think the conditions for it are ripe and now.
Chanda Smith Baker 36:23
So you talked about truth and reconciliation? Do you have any comment about reparations?
Richard Rothstein 36:28
Well, I don’t personally… I don’t use the term reparations because most people hear the term reparations and they think of a single monetary payment to the current generation. And that payment would never be very large. And it doesn’t solve the problem. This is a multi-generational problem. We need much more. We need policies, some of which would be cost-free, and are not covered by reparations. Some of them would be costly, for example, what we should be doing, is we should be subsidizing heavily the purchase of homes in middle class suburban communities, by African Americans who cannot presently afford them, but who could have afforded them when those homes were sold to whites only. That would be a costly program. But other programs would be no cost. For example, if we enacted a policy that required that more of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit developments be placed the high opportunity communities. If we prohibited single-family zoning nationwide, those kinds of things don’t cost anything. But the big steps towards the unsegregated society… Some of the policies would be costly, others would be at no cost. Restricting ourselves to a single monetary payment to African Americans as a way of solving this problem would not accomplish anything. And while I’m not saying it wouldn’t accomplish anything, of course, it would accomplish whatever your payment was, but once you’ve done that, many people will say, “Okay, we’ve solved that problem. Let’s move on.” Into this, to enact the many, many policies we need on an ongoing basis, not just this year, but next year, 10, 20, 30 years from now, the motivation for those would be weakened. So I think, focusing on reparations is a mistake. Certainly, we do need to spend a lot of money to undo the segregation that we created. But we can’t do it with a token payment.
Chanda Smith Baker 38:44
When you were doing your research, did any of that bring you to the history of redlining in Minnesota or Minneapolis?
Richard Rothstein 38:51
Well, my book and the research I did was a national story. And it was duplicated in every metropolitan area in the country. I didn’t focus specifically on Minnesota, but it certainly exists in Minnesota as well. As you probably know, there’s a group working partly out of the University of Minnesota, that’s been identifying all of the deeds in the City of Minneapolis that restricts homes to caucasians only, and that’s systematic throughout the city of Minneapolis as it is in many, many cities across the country. So I don’t specifically focus on Minneapolis or Minnesota. But the policies that I’m describing were consistent throughout the country. They were national policies, not local policies or the local policies supplemented them as well.
Chanda Smith Baker 38:55
Yeah, the Mapping Prejudice Project, I think is what you’re mentioning.
Richard Rothstein 39:58
Chanda Smith Baker 39:58
We recently actually showcased the documentary, “The Jim Crow of the North,” which does dive into a bit of the local history. One of the things that I don’t know if I was shocked about but definitely impacted me, was the history of the freeways in our country. And locally, we talk about 35W, and we talk about the freeway that came through the Rondo neighborhood, both black neighborhoods that separated the white community and the black community, and just the devastation that happened from that. I don’t think I completely understood and if I understood, I did not sit with it, it did not resonate to the extent it did when I read your book, in terms of what happened and that it was so organized and so consistent. Can you share just a little bit? Because I do think that for listeners that are local, they won’t understand that piece, because there’s been so many conversations around that.
Richard Rothstein 40:59
Well, I can certainly talk about that generally. I don’t know specifically about Minneapolis. But I do know that in the 1950s when the freeways were first created, the national highway system was first created of interstate highways. Highway spurs going into cities were deliberately routed either to create boundaries between black and white neighborhoods or to demolish black neighborhoods. The planners wanted to move farther away from where whites were working and living. One I’m familiar with, as I said I don’t know Minneapolis specifically, but in Chicago — I mentioned before, the Dan Ryan Expressway that goes through the South Side of Chicago is a boundary designed to separate black and white neighborhoods. In my book, I describe… I focus on Miami where the highways, the interstate highway that goes through Miami was deliberately routed to move African Americans out of a neighborhood near downtown into a father distant ghetto, where they have less opportunity and less access to jobs, rotation, and resources in their community. This was an explicit racial policy. Mayors and city planners were quite open about their purpose of routing highways in this way. I mentioned earlier, the Federal Housing Administration that subsidized the suburbanization of this country, the Federal Housing Administration put out a manual and the manual, in addition to saying no federal bank guarantees could be given to subdivisions that would be integrated into that manual also said that highways would be a good way to separate black and white communities. This is an explicit racial policy of the federal government.
Chanda Smith Baker 43:02
I don’t even know what to say. I mean, I know every time I hear it, it just hits my heart in the deepest, deepest way.
Richard Rothstein 43:09
If I can say so what you should say is, this is an unconstitutional system. And as American citizens, we need to do something about it. And that’s what I’m hoping people say.
Chanda Smith Baker 43:19
Yeah, I mean, and, you know, as we get ready to close, I think that is like, you know, what are individuals and institutions? And specifically, what can… Is there any role that philanthropy can have in terms of elevating this issue? Because I think it’s one thing for us to… I actually don’t even want to qualify that, you know, what do you think philanthropy’s role is in addressing this?
Richard Rothstein 43:41
Well, I think, as I said, there’s no political support now. Yet, for redressing segregation on a massive scale. As I mentioned, I am hoping to see and then trying to the extent I can to spur the creation of local civil rights groups that can take action in the local communities to address segregation. But I can give you an example, I was giving a talk in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago. I was moderating a panel with the mayor of Kansas City. And we were talking about the fact that most of the low-income housing is being built in place in low-income neighborhoods in Kansas City, and reinforcing that segregation. And so I asked him, “Why don’t you abolish single-family zoning in the city of Kansas City so that we can begin to play some of these projects in high opportunity places where people have access to jobs and transportation and good schools and healthy food and healthy air?” And he said, “Well, there’s no support from the city council for that.” So I asked him, “Well, how many city council people do you think would support it?” Then he thought and he said, “Four. Maybe five.” And I asked him how big of a city council, he said 13. And so I said you really need two more and you can get that fifth. He said that’s true. So I asked them, “Which are the two city council districts you think would be most likely to be subject to a change of view on this?” And he thought… he named Districts Four and District Six… I know nothing about Kansas City. But that’s what he said. When I was speaking before an audience of 300 people in Kansas City… so I asked the audience, “How many of you live in District Four, District Six?” And I’d say 40 hands went up. Well, a civil rights group in Kansas City should begin by organizing those 40 people. Begin educating their local communities that this history of segregation leading to a campaign to press those two city council people to redress segregation by abolishing single-family zoning in the city. What can philanthropy do? Well, that committee is going to need some support. And what philanthropies today do is they look for projects to support that have measurable results, frequently quantify it, well, this is not the kind of thing that philanthropy can fix. It can support direct action of civil rights groups. It’s very hard for these groups when they do exist to raise money for that kind of thing. So I think philanthropy needs to spend some time reconsidering whether it’s the kinds of projects that focus on which are all valuable… I’m not diminishing that they are the only kinds of things that they should focus on. Focusing on a civil rights movement at a local level, in local communities, could be a place where attention could be devoted.
Chanda Smith Baker 46:53
I would love to talk to you more about that, as we’re thinking through our own civil rights, our civic engagement strategy at the Minneapolis Foundation. Just a little bit about the podcast and how we started it… it’s a real attempt really to have people better understand our country’s past, to provide an educational opportunity or a way for people to get connected to the issues in different ways. And to talk about things that we have not typically talked about or had space for. And so it’s been quite a delight to lead this effort that the board and the leadership of the Foundation has allowed for me, to move into podcasting and talking about the grittier topics, especially racism and structural issues that often don’t get talked about in a cross-cultural way. And we’re hoping that we can at least ignite some action, some new thinking, and some different decision-making that hopefully can repair some of the wrongs that have been done.
Richard Rothstein 48:01
Well, I hope so too. I do hope that this current crisis passes and I can come to Minneapolis sometime, but in the meantime, we’ll have to communicate by phone and email. But we could accomplish a lot that way.
Chanda Smith Baker 48:16
Yes, I appreciate it. Before we depart… Our time, which I really appreciate you making this time commitment. But I heard you mention a new book. Do you have a timeline for that? Or do you want to share what might be next for you?
Richard Rothstein 48:29
Well, obviously, being locked in my home, for once I have more time to work on the book than I thought I would, but I don’t have a timeline. When it’s done, it’s done.
Chanda Smith Baker 48:49
Sounds good. And outside, of course, reading The Color of Law, are there any other resources or sites that you would recommend for our listeners if they wanted to dive deeper into this?
Richard Rothstein 49:02
Well, I mentioned some other books. I’m sure many listeners are familiar with… Michelle Alexander’s book… Bryan Stevenson’s book… Matthew Desmond’s book… There’s a new book that just came out that I think very highly of, it’s based on… it’s focused on California. But it’s worth reading, even in Minneapolis and elsewhere in the country, because the problems it describes are more advanced in California, but they’re coming your way. And the book is called Golden Gates. It’s by Conor Dougherty. And it’s the book I’ve most recently read that I think is most appropriate for thinking hard about how to address some of these problems.
Chanda Smith Baker 49:52
Perfect. I thank you so much.
Souphak Kienitz 49:55
To listen to more episodes and learn more about upcoming events, please ConversationsWithChanda.org. You can also follow Chanda on Twitter at @ChandaSBaker. This is Souphak Kienitz from the Minneapolis Foundation. Thank you for listening to Conversations with Chanda.Close Transcript -
Richard Rothstein is a Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and a fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and of the Haas Institute at the University of California (Berkeley). He is the author of “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”
The book expands upon and provides a national perspective on his recent work that has documented the history of state-sponsored residential segregation, as in his report, The Making of Ferguson. He is the author of “Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right and Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap.” He is also the author of “The Way We Were’ Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement.” Other recent books include “The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement” and “All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different.”