Susan Cox: ‘Color of Law’ a timely read on discrimination

I recently read “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein in preparation for the Black History Month Columbus community book discussions taking place this month. Rothstein focuses on dispelling the myth of de facto residential segregation — the idea that segregated neighborhoods resulted from private practices. He argues instead that we have de jure segregation — segregation resulting from laws and government policies — and that this de jure segregation is unconstitutional.

Rothstein documents how the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) would not insure mortgages for African Americans. Additionally, for developers to secure funding from the FHA, they were required to include restrictive racial covenants (rules in the housing contract that prohibited selling the house to non-Caucasians) that prevented integrating neighborhoods. This made it next to impossible for African Americans to purchase homes wherever they would like. If African Americans did purchase homes in white neighborhoods, courts often ordered them evicted from their homes due to such racial covenants and in many cases violence against the African Americans and their homes ensued while the police did nothing to stop it.

Rothstein also shows how zoning laws prohibiting multifamily housing or smaller lot sizes for single-family homes and the placement of segregated schools separated African Americans from whites. Condemning properties being considered by African Americans for parks was another tactic local governments used to prevent African Americans from purchasing homes where whites did not want them to be. Placement of the interstate highways was also used to destroy urban African American communities.

Unfortunately, all of these segregation tactics, of which I’ve only mentioned a few, have had lasting negative impacts on African Americans. Being denied mortgages or having higher payments prevented them from accumulating generational wealth. Designated African American neighborhoods were often situated next to industrial areas or landfills leading to health issues for those who lived there.

As I read this book, I was infuriated at our treatment of African Americans. I was particularly upset when I learned that previously integrated neighborhoods were purposefully segregated in places like Houston, Raleigh, and Atlanta. Sadly, only some progress has been made and racial bias continues in housing decisions today.

Thinking about this housing inequity made me wonder about Columbus. We don’t have a very large Black population and I don’t think we’re very integrated, particularly in the more affluent neighborhoods. I’m also concerned that most housing developments that are proposed and then approved target higher-income people. For example, in December the City Council approved a $5.8 million subsidy for mixed use development on Washington Street that will contain 50 luxury apartments. Concerns about spending tax dollars to support high end apartments when more local affordable housing is needed were raised in discussion of the project. Some people proposed waiting to make a decision until the city’s housing study is complete. (The housing study should be complete in June or July of this year.)

Rothstein does offer a few solutions. First, he proposes that middle and high school curriculums teach an accurate account of how we came to be segregated to stop perpetuating the myth of de facto segregation. Recognizing many of his ideas are not currently politically feasible, he suggests federal subsidies for middle-class African Americans to buy homes in suburbs that have been racially exclusive as well as changing exclusionary zoning laws that prohibit multifamily housing or require single-family homes to be built on large lots with high minimum square footage requirements. Additionally, requiring inclusionary zoning based on income could be helpful.

“The Color of Law” was published in 2017 and Rothstein and his daughter Leah Rothstein have written another book, “Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation That Was Enacted Under the Color of Law”, published in 2023, that focuses on solutions and what we can do to address these inequities.

Both Richard and Leah Rothstein will remotely join the last community discussion of The Color of Law on Thursday, Feb. 29, from 3-4:30 p.m. in the Summerville Room of the Columbus Learning Center. I encourage you to join the discussion, read the book, or both to learn what we can do to make Columbus more equitable and inclusive.

Susan Cox is one of The Republic’s community columnists, and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. She is an avid reader, an outdoor enthusiast, a mother, a grandmother, and an adjunct instructor of English at IUPUC. She can be reached at [email protected].