Book Review: The Color of Law

I’ve always found describing a book as “important” a bit pretentious.  But I make an exception for this one, whose full title (with US spelling) is The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America by Richard Rothstein, published by Liveright Publishing.

In it, Mr Rothstein dissects how the US establishment has systematically separated people by skin colour/ethnicity and class.  As he argues in his preface, the deeply divided US cities of today “were not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States”.  

The key feature in this process has been access to housing and deliberately discriminatory laws that prevented African-Americans and other minorities from living in some places, while confining them to others.  Critically, as Rothstein concludes, this poisonous legacy endures – and I would add, assumes renewed toxicity under President Trump.

The book provides copious evidence of how the law has been used as a weapon of racism, but also pays tribute to the many people who resisted it.  One example is how the city of Chicago, backed by the federal government, refused to permit public housing in predominantly “white” areas.  Defending this de facto apartheid, President Gerald Ford’s solicitor general said “There will be an enormous practical impact on innocent (i.e. white) communities who have to bear the burden of the housing, who will have to house a plaintiff (i.e. black) class…”

When I visited Chicago in May, local housing justice campaigners were fighting – against stiff resistance – to include a relatively small number of “affordable” (not public) housing in Jefferson Park, an area with fewer than 1% African-American residents, in a city where they comprise at least 30% of the population.  As one of the campaigners told me, “It’s as though we’re back in the 60s”.

The Color of Law shows that a particularly pernicious element in keeping people in their place is the planning system, known as “zoning” in the US.  From supposedly benign, even enlightened, roots, land-use planning quickly became an instrument of social and ethnic engineering.  Although overt residential segregation has been illegal in the US since 1926, as Rothstein notes:

…numerous white suburbs in towns across the country have adopted exclusionary zoning ordinances to prevent low-income families from residing in their midst.  Frequently, class snobbishness and racial prejudice were so intertwined that when suburbs adopted such ordinances, it was impossible to disentangle their motives and to prove that the zoning rules violated constitutional prohibitions of racial discrimination. (p53)

Legal mechanisms under-pinning racist housing policies and practice in the US have been reinforced by the grossly disproportionate financial subsidies provided by the State to private home owners (predominantly white), by comparison with that to tenants of non-market rented housing (predominantly non-white).  This systematic, politically motivated, bias is being deepened in the US today, where the Trump administration is driving through savage cuts to the affordable housing budget and seeking to hike rents for public housing tenants.

From a UK perspective, the author’s apparent faith in the potential of the US Constitution to promote social equality, against all the evidence he presents to the contrary, seems odd.  But it would be a mistake to think that any of the issues in this excellent and yes, important, book don’t have their close or direct comparison in the UK.




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