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The Color of Law Book Review (2017)

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Book Author: Richard Rothstein

Dr. RL Booker's Ratings






(Rating: 5 highest & 1 lowest)


"Without our government’s purposeful imposition of racial segregation, the other causes—private prejudice, white flight, real estate steering, bank redlining, income differences, and self-segregation—still would have existed but with far less opportunity for expression. Segregation by intentional government action is not de facto (exists in reality, not official). Rather, it is what courts call de jure: segregation by law and public policy"

Richard Rothstein exercises his years of experience from working at the Economic Policy Institue and the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to pull together a deep historical and insightful body of work that clearly shows how the United States government intentionally and strategically segregated America. He acknowledges that in the U.S. we have, "created a caste system in this country, with African Americans, kept exploited and geographically separate by racially explicit government policies. Although most of these policies are now off the books, they have never been remedied and their effects endure." The consequences of this can still be seen today in many of the five major systems (finance, education, criminal justice, healthcare, and child welfare) where Blacks are at the bottom in every single category.

In this book, Rothstein goes as far back as 1880 and as present as 2017 to show how the public policy of segregation is still having long-lasting effects on generations of not only Black families, but also White families. He conducted an extensive review of the laws that informed and directed the actions of federal, state, and local officials as well as private citizens. He also uses numerous anecdotal accounts from individuals who experienced the full weight of a system designed to support the false hierarchy of human value. Through the combination of laws and personal experiences, he provides great detail as to how the federal and state governments played a significant role in denying Blacks the ability to:

- Acquire home loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)

- Take advantage of fair and/or equal public housing amenities as compared to Whites

- Live in neighborhoods where homes would appreciate in value

- Purchase a home in the neighborhood of their choice

- Possess full and equal citizenship under the law

- Reside in communities with well-resourced school systems and libraries

- Live in areas that were not considered *slums

- Have proximity to areas with fresh food, e.g. fruits and vegetables

- Exercise their 14 Amendment right to have "equal protection under the law"

These are only a few of the many details that Rothstein outlines. He makes it clear that these public policy decisions have had a significant detrimental impact on Blacks throughout the years. One example, he highlights is that seventy years ago, millions of Whites were given the opportunity to purchase suburban single-family homes that cost about $75,000, and if Blacks had been given the same chance, many would have also done the same. However, today, "working- and lower-middle-class African American families cannot now buy homes for $350,000 and more with down payments of 20 percent." This is because of the advantages that the FHA and Veterans Administration (VA) loans gave to White lower-middle-class families, "in the 1940s and 50s have become permanent."

He also gives detailed solutions on what can be done to solve this problem. One of the many solutions that he provides is to start by telling our children the truth via middle school and high school curricula. The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century is one of the most commonly used American history textbooks. The most recent edition has this one line in it about segregation in the North: "African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods. That’s it. One passive voice sentence. No suggestion of who might have done the forcing or how it was implemented." He also explains that our school systems are more segregated today than they were in 1970, mostly because our neighborhoods where the schools are located are so segregated. His solutions are very intentional and require wide implementation because we have to deal with the world as it is as opposed to our blueprint view of it.

I highly recommend this book as a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the unprecedented role that our government played in Jim Crow Segregation and the effects that it has had on not only Blacks but also everyone else in our society. Rothstein makes sure his readers understand that,

This is not a book about Whites as actors and Blacks as victims. As citizens in this democracy, we—all of us, White, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, Native American, and others—bear a collective responsibility to enforce our Constitution and to rectify past violations whose effects endure...we, all of us, owe this to ourselves. As American citizens, whatever routes we or our particular ancestors took to get to this point, we’re all in this together now.


Notable Quotes in the Book

"The federal government’s housing rules pushed...cities into a more rigid segregation than otherwise would have existed"

"The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited future discrimination, but it was not primarily discrimination (although this still contributed) that kept African Americans out of most white suburbs after the law was passed. It was primarily unaffordability. The right that was unconstitutionally denied to African Americans in the late 1940s cannot be restored by passing a Fair Housing law that tells their descendants they can now buy homes in the suburbs, if only they can afford it"

"That the San Francisco region was segregated by government policy is particularly striking because, in contrast to metropolitan areas like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, or Baltimore, northern California had few African Americans before migrants like Frank Stevenson arrived during World War II in search of jobs. The government was not following preexisting racial patterns; it was imposing segregation where it hadn’t previously taken root"

"In 1984, investigative reporters from the Dallas Morning News visited federally funded developments in 47 metropolitan areas. The reporters found that the nation’s nearly 10 Million public housing tenants were almost always segregated by race and that every predominantly white-occupied project had facilities, amenities, services, and maintenance that were superior to what was found in predominantly black-occupied projects"


* Slum - Highly populated urban residential area consisting mostly of closely packed, decrepit housing units in a situation of deteriorated or incomplete infrastructure, inhabited primarily by impoverished persons, which were intentionally created by policies enacted by the U.S. federal and state government.



Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law. Liverlight Publishing Corporation.

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