The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (Non-fiction)

This is a thought-provoking, though somewhat rambling, overview of the impact of systemic racism in U.S. housing policy on African Americans. To be clear (because systemic racism has become an almost meaningless phrase thrown at everything), Rothstein documents the laws and policies — federal, state, and local — that explicitly made it illegal to sell real-estate to non-whites, give mortgages to non-whites, or offer certain kinds of tax-breaks to non-whites. These laws and policies were in action just as the suburban lifestyle took center stage with new housing developments supported by transportation networks optimized for suburb to city commutes. Subsequent chapters followed the resulting situations as housing prices outstripped wage gains and tax policies swerved to benefit home owners over city renters, etc.

While Rothstein’s extended research is accurate (and horrifying) it is anecdotal and not comprehensive. In other words, we hear about all of the racist laws, the long court battles trying to change them thus upholding the 14th amendment, and the many workarounds people used to avoid repercussions for ignoring court decisions — but we don’t really get to understand how prevalent this behavior was. I’m guessing it was quite prevalent, but I can’t actually tell from reading this book.

I’m also not thrilled by his conclusions — he constantly conflates race and class and often leaps straight from terrible situations to unsupported causal connections. For example, in one part he goes from housing unfairness to gangs in four sentences without considering any other possible explanations. Similarly, in a discussion of income mobility, the data showed African Americans had less income mobility than whites — but not as much less as one might expect under the circumstances. This he explained with a wave of hands suggesting that African Americans had worked twice as hard and / or that affirmative action was “working.” Lastly, despite the title, this book focussed only on the aspect of law that relates to housing and not to the many other aspects of law that could be shown to support racist policies.

Still — incredible eye-opening descriptions of what was done by the government to treat African Americans unfairly and the lengthy and complicated process required to make changes. If you can find someone to give a good summary, that might be preferable to actually reading the book which is a bit of a slog.

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