Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law, sheds light on the root causes of housing segregation in America. Contrary to popular belief, the author argues that it was not individual choices that caused segregation, but rather federal and local public policies. For example, in the 1930s and 1940s, the federal government prohibited housing developers from selling homes to Black Americans in newly created suburbs. Meanwhile, Black families were forced to live in projects, which over time became neglected not by the residents, but by the city government such as neglecting to collect garbage on time. These areas would often turn into slums.
When those neighborhoods were eventually demolished, white families who had purchased homes decades earlier gained wealth due to appreciation of their homes and the benefits that came with it, while Black families were left behind due to discriminatory policies. Those same white families could then use money from their homes to send their kids to college or take care of ailing parents. Although the federal government declared housing discrimination unconstitutional in 1958, the damage had already been done, and many black families were unable to afford homes in the suburbs.
Today, the average Black income is only 60% of the average White income, and the average wealth of Black families is just 5% of White families, largely due to the lack of access to homeownership. Rothstein believes that aggressive public policies are needed to reverse the effects of past discriminatory policies. This could include implementing mixed-income housing in higher-income and suburban communities, although he acknowledges that it will come at a cost. For example, there may be a need to spend more money on catching up students who come from lower-income schools, as well as addressing behavioral or emotional issues. The question then becomes, how can communities be convinced to pay these costs?
Originally written in 2017.
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