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How the Federal Government Segregated America

Don Rose 9 May 2017 One Comment

I want to depart briefly from the unreal world of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, etc. to talk about a new, virtually indispensible book that tells the full story of the federal role in creating and perpetuating America’s greatest shame: racial segregation. It’s called “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America,” by Richard Rothstein (Liveright, 336 pp, $$27.95 hardcover).

No less a liberal than John F. Kennedy, in an acclaimed speech, spoke of ending “both the de jure segregation of the South and the de facto segregation of the North.”  De jure means “by law”–the kind of blatant laws and ordinances the wicked South was known for, along with its “legally” segregated schools–while de facto segregation just sort of happened either through historical accident or personal choice of minorities who chose to live with each other. Kennedy was either  unaware or could not admit that de facto segregation is an elaborate myth, brought about by an incremental conspiracy of federal, state and local laws–often enforced by the police.


Here in Chicago, I and others have demonstrated that we became the nation’s most segregated city through a series of actions by every instrumentality of local government conspiring with the real estate industry. Yes, we knew that the federal government pitched in back in the old days, but all but the wisest sociologists and urbanologists still deemed it “de facto.”

Now comes Rothstein, a fellow of the Economic Policy Institute, who has been a community organizer in Chicago, a union official and an education columnist for the New York Times, to call out the “de facto” lie and demonstrate that every major metropolitan area in the nation was segregated not only by local acts but by a century-long series of  federal laws and regulations.(Disclosure: in the ’70s Rothstein and I collaborated on a couple of articles.)

He begins by noting, “We think of the San Francisco Bay Area as one of the nation’s more liberal and inclusive regions. If the federal, state and local governments explicitly segregated the population into distinct black and white neighborhoods in the Bay Area, it’s a reasonable assumption that our government also segregated metropolitan regions elsewhere with at least as much determination.”

He then proceeds painstakingly to  make his point on a city-by-city basis through the last century, citing everything from court cases to federal government regulations and maps explicitly showing where blacks can live or be denied housing loans. There are horrifying details, such as one edict requiring a wall be built between black and white neighborhoods. He shows local governments happily going along , citing numerous instances where blacks who moved into white neighborhoods were burnt out or routed out by mobs, with the local police standing by or arresting the victims, not the perpetrators.

He also illustrates how some federal  jobs were officially denied blacks and unions permitted to bar them from membership–even by theoretically liberal presidents and senators–thereby contributing mightily to impoverishing many black neighborhoods. Toward the end he even proposes the beginnings of difficult solutions.

It’s impossible with my brief word allowance to give more detail and example. I can only implore anyone interested in understanding the depth of the problem to read this necessary book.

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

image Red Lining on an overcoat

One Comment »

  • John Powers said:

    Begs the question, after 50+ years of enforcement against most of the practices listed above, why is there so much segregation in areas that weren’t even settled till after 1970 or so?

    May be more to this story than just the regular drumbeat for more laws and more lawsuits.

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