A few weeks before I joined Legal Aid, I received a copy of The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. This thought-provoking book tells the story of how housing policy has entrenched racial segregation. I received it as a gift from the Washington Council of Lawyers as part of a training program on eviction defense.
Now, as the federal and District government face a wave of unemployment, and the surge in housing instability that will result without purposeful government action, The Color of Law takes on renewed importance. This book explains how government action weaponized the law to maintain racially segregated neighborhoods and led to generations of housing instability for many families of color.
The Color of Law traverses the origins of public housing, racially exclusionary zoning laws, and a broad array of other federal and local housing policies that intended to and succeeded at oppressing and segregating African Americans. However, the book never feels chaotic. Each chapter is topically structured around a different housing policy that was used to propagate racial segregation.
For example, the chapter “Own Your Own Home” describes the creation of the Federal Housing Administration during the Great Depression. For decades, the agency only insured mortgages for homes owned by white families in segregated all white neighborhoods. This federal policy locked most African Americans out of the housing market entirely and barred their ability to grow their wealth as home prices rose throughout the middle of the twentieth century.
Rothstein does not allow this book to get trapped in abstract policy. He excavates powerful individual stories, illustrating the impact of each policy. In “Own Your Own Home,” Rothstein tells the tale of the Mereday family.
Robert Mereday, an African American man who lived on Long Island, New York in the 1940s, ran his own trucking company. He earned a solid middle-class income and was able to hire his nephews, whom he paid decently. Mereday even won a contract to deliver drywall to Levittown, a large suburban housing division, built for veterans returning from World War II.
Although his income was equivalent to homeowners in Levittown, Mereday did not bother applying for one of the homes there because he knew it was futile. He would be rejected based on his race. As Rothstein explains, if Levittown had integrated, it would have lost the federal subsidies on which it relied.
Nonetheless, one of Mereday’s nephews, a navy veteran who worked for his uncle’s trucking company, applied for a Levittown house, but was rejected. So, the nephew bought a house in an almost all black neighboring suburb. Levittowners could buy their homes without a down payment and with low-interest federally insured mortgages. Mereday’s nephew had to make a large down payment and needed to get an uninsured mortgage with a high interest rate. This is just one of the many stories that Rothstein tells to show how government policies locked African-American families out of economic opportunity.
Rothstein’s thorough recounting of the racist laws that cultivated housing segregation crystalizes into a call to action. State sanctioned policies and laws created housing segregation; only purposeful state action can undo this harm. In Rothstein’s words: “Actions of government in housing cannot be neutral about segregation. They will either exacerbate or reverse it.”
As we think through policies in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the lessons from The Color of Law take on fresh significance. When building protections for homeowners and renters during this crisis, the federal and District governments must remember the racist polices of the past, which prevented so many families of color from accessing economic opportunity, and affirmatively work to reverse them.