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Speaker Series: Richard Rothstein, Economic Policy Institute

  • When: October 17, 2018, 12:30–2 pm
  • Where: ABF Woods Conference Room, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, 4th Floor, Lakeside, Chicago IL 60611

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THE COLOR OF LAW: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

The Color of Law documents how American cities, from San Francisco to Boston, became so racially divided, as federal, state, and local governments systematically imposed residential segregation, with:

  • undisguised racial zoning,
  • public housing that purposefully segregated previously mixed communities,
  • subsidies for builders to create whites-only suburbs,
  • tax exemptions for institutions that enforced segregation,
  • official support for violent resistance to African Americans in white neighborhoods,
  • state licensing of real estate brokers whose code prohibited racial mixing,
  • state and federal court orders evicting African Americans who moved to white neighborhoods,
  • routing of highways to separate African American and white neighborhoods

These policies were supplemented by racially purposeful government programs that depressed African American incomes, making escape nearly impossible from neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage. Properties in African American neighborhoods frequently had higher assessed-to-market-value ratios, resulting in higher property tax payments. The federal government certified unions that excluded African Americans from membership, denying them full participation in the economic boom that followed World War II.

Such programs still influence tragedies in places like Ferguson and elsewhere. Scholars have separately described many of these policies; The Color of Law uniquely brings them together to show how they interacted to create a powerful system of residential segregation in every metropolitan area.

Under our legal system, it is difficult if not impossible to design effective policies to integrate the nation, because we are hobbled by the notion that our segregation is “de facto,” arising from private discrimination, personal choices, and the unintended consequences of economic forces. But once we understand that our racial landscape has been created and maintained “de jure,” by governmental law and policy, we can engage in a national conversation to design remedies.

We could, for example, prohibit suburbs from maintaining zoning that prohibits affordable housing, like modest single family homes, town-houses, or apartments. We could require that all new development be mixed-income. For lower-income families hoping to move to integrated neighborhoods, we could prohibit landlords from discriminating against “Section 8” voucher families and adjust voucher administration to make them affordable in middle-class communities. Such policies are not only feasible, but in the context of our shameful history, constitutionally required.

Courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute

Richard Rothstein is a Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and a Senior Fellow, emeritus, at 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, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other booksellers. The book recovers a forgotten history of how federal, state, and local policy explicitly segregated metropolitan areas nationwide, creating racially homogenous neighborhoods in patterns that violate the Constitution and require remediation. He is also the author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (2008); Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (2004); and The Way We Were? Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement (1998). Other recent books include The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement (co-authored in 2005); and All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different? (co-authored in 2003). He welcomes comments at

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