The Color of Law

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein (2017)  – Nonfiction 


One of the main necessities in life is shelter – a roof over your head. Preferably one that is clean and sanitary, free of mold or pests and other harmful things. Somewhere safe is also highly preferably – you feel comfortable walking outside or letting your kids play out in the front yard. 

Housing is crucial for the trajectory of any individual. Success is often dependent on where you live from an early age. Property values rise and fall by the test scores of the local school district. I have learned this even more so from my first endeavor into home buying in the Kansas City metro area. 

The Color of Law succinctly describes how housing and the policies that were implemented and encouraged by both the federal government and local entities prevented Black Americans from experiencing and pursuing that elusive American dream. 

The book examines different time periods beginning shortly after the end of the Civil War and into the 21st century and how different policies espoused by everyone from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)  to certain unions prevented Black Americans from accessing a crucial resource for lifelong success – affordable and quality housing. We often, unfortunately, think of federal housing and the programs associated with it for “poor” people. But the initial start of vouchers and other subsidies for home buying started after the end of WWII. With an influx of soldiers returning to the stateside workforce, companies and other businesses needed workers close by to start a new era of American industry. With these new businesses cropping up and relocating to different parts of the county, the workforce followed and often times there was a shortage of housing at the new work site. As Richard Rothstein writes, “Public housing’s original purpose was to give shelter not to those too poor to afford it but to those who could afford decent housing but couldn’t find it because none was available.”

In terms of housing discrimination, we may immediately think of a situation of a white homeowner refusing to sell his or her home to a person of a different race. Rothstein describes however the many steps that state governments and federal entities like the FHA used to also prevent Black Americans from purchasing homes in newly developed areas and created the segregation that is the byproduct of those policies in many major urban cities today. 

Rothstein describes St. Louis’s discriminatory zoning practices: 

In addition to promoting segregation, zoning decisions contributed to degrading St. Louis’s African American neighbors into slums. Not only were these neighborhoods zoned to permit industry, even polluting industry, but the plan commission permitted taverns, liquor stores, nightclubs, and houses of prostitution to open in African American neighborhoods but prohibited these as zoning violations in neighborhoods where whites lived. Residences in single-family districts could not legally be subsided, but those in industrial districts could be, and with African Americans restricted from all but a few neighborhoods, rooming houses sprang up to accommodate the overcrowded population.”

These types of practices at the state level worked in concert with federal housing discriminatory measures. To promote home buying, the FHA created special insured amortized mortgages, but in the regulations for banks to offer these mortgages, prevented these mortgages to be issued for homes that were near rooming houses, commercial development, or industry – preventing Black Americans from qualifying for these advantageous loans. 

The Color of Law is a short and concise book – topping out at a little over 200 pages. While heavy on detail, Rothstein prevents the reader from falling into a history book-feel by guiding the reader with stories about Black American couples and families who were thwarted by state governments and institutions from buying a home in the neighborhood of their choice. The Color of Law is an important book for all to read as it shines light on practices from the past that have real consequences that are still being felt in so many ways today.

Richard Rothstein is a Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and an Emeritus Senior Fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The Color of Law was long listed for The National Book Award for Nonfiction. 

Buy a copy at The Raven Book Store or Amazon.

Book Review

marisabayless View All →

Lover of the written word.

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