The Color of Law Summary

The Color of Law is a 2017 nonfiction book arguing that residential racial segregation in the United States is not an accident but a matter of government policy.

  • Author Richard Rothstein traces the history of segregated public housing, race-based zoning, racially restrictive covenants, “white flight,” and violence against Black homeowners.
  • Rothstein also explains the connection between segregation and income inequality, the latter of which is itself evidence of de jure rather than de facto segregation.
  • Finally, Rothstein urges readers to face the facts and consider how the historic injustice of segregation might be remedied.


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Last Updated on February 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1085

In the preface, Richard Rothstein begins by saying that most people are aware of the fact that housing is in fact racially segregated, but they assume that this is an accident, an unintended result of well-intentioned government initiatives, residents’ personal choices, and various other factors. This book will show that residential racial segregation is in fact the result of deliberate and sustained government policies. The author will also argue that it is the duty of all Americans to demand a remedy for this inequality.

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In chapter 1, Rothstein examines racial segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, arguing that if deliberate segregation can be demonstrated in one of the most liberal and diverse parts of the United States, it may be taking place anywhere. He uses the story of Frank Stevenson, who came to Richmond, across the bay from San Francisco, during World War II, to illustrate the difficulties African Americans have faced in finding and securing housing. Stevenson had lived and worked in the Bay Area for more than twenty-five years before he was able to buy a home, and he was one of the luckier Black residents. The home he eventually purchased in 1970 was in a district that had only been open to white people when he arrived in the area.

Chapter 2 traces the history of public housing in the US from its origins in the early twentieth century. The public housing projects were originally intended for “respectable” working- and lower-middle-class people and had a long list of stringent conditions for residence. They were initially closed to African Americans, and when this changed in the 1930s, they were segregated. The segregation of public housing not only reinforced but increased the level of overall residential segregation in the US and created ghettos for racial minorities.

Chapter 3 covers the practice of race-based zoning, which increased segregation during the first half of the twentieth century. This practice created white middle-class suburbs and Black urban ghettos. Zoning not only excluded African Americans from the most desirable locations, but made many Black neighborhoods worse by allowing toxic waste facilities to be situated nearby.

Chapter 4 addresses the treatment of affluent and middle-class African Americans who could not be excluded from upscale neighborhoods by zoning laws that used class as a proxy for race. The author examines the government-backed policy of racial exclusivity at the huge Levittown development in New York and the case of the Mereday family, who owned their own haulage business and participated in building the development but were prohibited from living there. The developer, William Levitt, would not have been able to attract government financing for the project if it had been open to African Americans.

In chapter 5, the author discusses the use of racially restrictive covenants, which prevented many white homeowners from reselling their houses to African Americans. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the government to enforce such clauses, but the Federal Housing Administration and other government agencies were slow and reluctant to comply with this ruling.

Chapter 6, on “white flight,” continues to show the Federal Housing Administration’s advocacy for segregation in its contention that Black inhabitants lowered the property values in a neighborhood. The author provides evidence that this is untrue, except in the cases where the FHA itself created conditions that led to the deterioration of African American neighborhoods.

Chapter 7 examines the complicity of the Internal Revenue Service and government regulators in allowing and encouraging segregation. The IRS has granted tax-exempt status to churches and universities that pursued unconstitutional policies of segregation, while government regulators have ignored such practices as predatory lending, which disproportionately targets African Americans.

Chapter 8 provides evidence that federal policies of racial discrimination have been reinforced on a local level throughout the US. Local authorities have used stifling levels of regulation to prevent integrated developments from being built and have used the building of interstate highways as an excuse to drive African Americans away from suburbs close to central business districts. Until the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, local education authorities also used the location of segregated schools to reinforce residential segregation.

In chapter 9, Rothstein gives a series of examples in which the government, the police, and the courts ignored or were complicit in violence against African American homeowners. Beginning in the 1950s, he describes multiple instances of large mobs, as many as 4,000 people in one case, attacking homes and families and destroying property. When arrests were made, the rioters were not indicted, though the victims sometimes were. The last incident described occurred in 1985 in a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky, after a Ku Klux Klan meeting, and revealed that many police officers were Klan members.

Chapter 10 examines the issue of income inequality. Rothstein points out that, while it is often argued that African Americans are less likely to live in middle-class white neighborhoods because they cannot afford to do so, this is itself evidence of de jure segregation if the government is complicit in depressing their income. He shows how policies such as discriminatory taxation, and a failure to regulate predatory landlords, have left African Americans with little disposable income and no opportunity to build wealth and invest in property.

In chapter 11, the author points out that the effects of long-term residential segregation are particularly difficult to reverse. Civil rights legislation has been far more effective at preventing discrimination in employment, voting, and even education than it has in the area of housing. White homeowners have been given the opportunity to build wealth through equity in their houses, most of which have appreciated substantially in value, over many decades. African Americans who rent accommodation or own homes in less affluent areas have been permanently denied this chance.

Chapter 12 addresses what steps might be taken to remedy the historic injustice of residential segregation. Rothstein admits that this is an exceptionally difficult task and that his own proposals are not practically workable; they are suggested only as examples of the type of steps that might be taken. One such proposal is that the state might purchase houses in middle-class white neighborhoods and sell them to African Americans at the prices their grandparents would have paid if they had been able to live in these places.

In a brief epilogue, Rothstein lists the actions that the government and various agencies and institutions have taken to cause and exacerbate segregation. He concludes by stressing that any attempt to remedy the situation must begin by accepting the truth and taking responsibility for the injustice.

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