Greenfield, Mass. (Special to Informed Comment) – For many years, I worked in Boston public housing with teams of residents, community organizations, public housing staff and other professors on reducing and removing the many asthma triggers that caused the highest rates of asthma and asthma attacks in the city. Living and working in the heart of the city neighborhoods, I was keenly aware of the apartheid nature of public and residential housing (black Roxbury, white South Boston, white gentrification overtaking the mixed-income, interracial South End, and white suburbs)
I had been familiar with the mid-20th century pattern of “white flight” from urban neighborhoods to suburbs, abetted by venal realtors, and “redlining”– realtors and banks refusing to show or offer mortgages to qualified African American homebuyers in white neighborhoods. Both fostered the toxic racial segregation in our cities and metropolitan areas. But I learned only recently that this was one of many drivers of our national black–white segregation. Systematic and forceful racist government policies, beginning in the early 20th century, formed the foundation of black ghettos and white suburbs.
The Federal Housing Administration created during the New Deal, forced newly built suburbs to be racially exclusive through guaranteeing whites only mortgages. State courts colluded in restrictive covenants, by excluding blacks from certain neighborhoods and ordering the eviction of African American residents from designated white neighborhoods. Churches, universities and hospitals supported restrictive covenants in their vicinities to keep their neighborhoods white, yet they never lost their tax-exempt status. Federal and state highway planners used the interstate highways construction to demolish black neighborhoods and business districts, pushing African Americans deeper into urban ghettos. Because of institutional racism, Black veterans of World War II received only 40% of the white veterans’ benefits. Police refrained from arresting white mobs threatening new black homeowners in white suburbs.
These are but a handful of the dozen mechanisms used by governments to force and reinforce racially black ghettos and white suburbs, exposed in Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law. These government policies, consequently, underlie the extreme wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans. Most white middle class families gained their wealth from home value appreciation over time and mortgage interest deductions for homeowners, denied to ghettoized African Americans.
Today the median Black family’s wealth is about one-tenth that of a white family, with no progress made in 70 years. Nearly one-half of poor black children live in deeply impoverished neighborhoods, four times the rate of poor white children. The impacts are malignant and multi-generational. Upward mobility is frozen for generations of blacks.
These same neighborhoods are food deserts with limited access to nutritional and affordable food, have fewer primary care physicians, fewer bookstores and literacy experiences, more airborne pollutants because of traffic congestion and disproportionately sited industrial facilities, more overcrowded living arrangements, neglected playgrounds, underfunded schools, greater peril in situations with police and criminal justice, and higher Covid rates and deaths. All of these underclass living conditions are largely due to intentional segregated housing policy of federal, state and local governments.
Remedies are needed, and our government owes them. Nor is the idea new. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 gave surviving Japanese Americans reparations and a formal apology by President Reagan for their incarceration during World War II. Though late and meager in amount, it is a precedent.
The Color of Law is strongest in making the case for the overarching role of government in creating a segregated country, which has deprived African Americans of upward mobility comparable to whites. The remedies Rothstein suggests are affirmative action in housing policy and practice, such as low-income Black families moving to lower-poverty neighborhoods with Section 8 housing vouchers. Another is states’ requiring developers to set aside units in middle-income housing developments for low-income families.
What The Color of Law does not do – but is essential for the housing policy remedies to succeed – is address how whites and blacks move from being strangers to neighbors, who live well side-by-side. This will demand that whites commit to examining our conscious and unconscious racial attitudes. I highly recommend: Let’s Talk Race: A Guide for White People by Fern Johnson and Marlene Fine. Both former UMass professors are white mothers who together raised two black sons. As reviewers of this book wrote: “A solid and practical guide to having the necessary conversations that those of us who are white are so reluctant to have.” “… With a call for fearless speech and courageous listening, the authors refuse to be complicit with white silence, apathy and ignorance…” These capture my own perspective of this fine, insightful, educational book.
Bonus Video added by Informed Comment: