Richard Rothstein, Distinguished Fellow at the Economics Policy Institute, spoke on ways in which the past has determined race-based social inequality today in the United States. He focused his presentation on federal housing policies that have resulted in residential segregation, countering the widely held assertion that these housing patterns are “de facto” because they emerged from individual or market-based activity.
In the first part of the 20th century, the civil rights movement began by challenging segregation in law schools, Mr. Rothstein said, and then went on to challenging segregation in colleges and universities, leading to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.1 “The Brown decision inspired, motivated, and energized a growing civil rights movement,” he said. “By the end of the 1960s, the movement had persuaded much of the country—not all of the country—that racial segregation was wrong, harmful to Blacks and whites, and was incompatible with our self-conception as a constitutional democracy.” By the end of the 1960s, legal segregation was abolished in public accommodations, transportation, schools, employment, and other areas of life. However, Mr. Rothstein said:
The civil rights movement disbanded and left the biggest segregation of all: which is that every metropolitan area in this country is residentially segregated…. What we’ve done, all of us, Blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, northerners and southerners, is to create a rationalization to explain the failure…. We tell ourselves what happened by accident can only un-happen by accident. The name we give to this myth is de facto segregation.
The rationalization, he continued, is to say that residential segregation was not caused by the government, but rather by bigoted landlords or homeowners, by banks and real estate agents in the private economy, or because of personal preferences or difference in income level—terming it de facto segregation. “We regret it, but we don’t think it is our responsibility to fix
it,” he said, paraphrasing the belief that the government did not cause nor can it solve residential segregation.
According to Mr. Rothstein, residential segregation lies behind the achievement gap between Black and white students. He took issue with the premise of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which he noted passed in 2001 with bipartisan support and was endorsed by the civil rights community.2 NCLB, he said, ascribed the achievement gap to teachers’ low expectations of low-income, particularly Black, students. Mr. Rothstein countered this premise by pointing out that children who live in more polluted neighborhoods, in poorly maintained buildings, and with other disadvantages may have health conditions that impact their learning. “What happens if almost all the kids in the school have these conditions, how can you expect that school to have the achievement level of a school where most children are well rested and healthy? It is impossible to have that expectation,” he said. Mr. Rothstein said:
Schools today are more segregated than at any time in the last 50 years in this country, and they are more segregated because the neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated. I came to the conclusion that neighborhood segregation is an educational problem and not just a housing problem.
The premise that residential segregation is a form of de facto segregation was cited in a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision about school-choice lottery systems in Louisville and Seattle.3 The case involved a situation in which a Black child and a white child might be vying for one remaining slot in a school, and consideration for diversity might give the Black child the slot (according to Mr. Rothstein, a situation that rarely arises in reality). In his controlling opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that de facto neighborhood segregation caused the school segregation, and the U.S. Constitution prohibits taking explicit action to redress the situation.
2 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. Pub. L. No. 107-110.
3 For background on the case, see Greenhouse, L. 2007. Justices limit the use of race in school plans for integration. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/29/washington/29scotus.html [Accessed May 13, 2020].
Deliberate government actions, rather than de facto causes, have created neighborhood segregation, Mr. Rothstein said. Using Louisville as an example, he noted when a white homeowner purchased and re-sold a home to an African American family in the community of Shively in the 1950s when the family could not purchase a home otherwise. Mobs protected by the police firebombed the home, and the white homeowner was tried and convicted for sedition. Police protection of the mob, Mr. Rothstein pointed out, was a violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “This was not a unique situation,” Mr. Rothstein continued. “In the 20th century, there were thousands of cases of police-protected mobs driving African Americans out of their homes that they had purchases or rented in white neighborhoods. Every one of them was a 14th Amendment violation that we have never remedied.” Although bigotry, income differences, and some self-segregation play into housing patterns, he said, none of them is powerful enough to explain the segregation that continues today. “Inequality today is not merely the legacy of slavery—not to minimize that—it is the ongoing effects of Jim Crow policies enforced by the government that we still live with today.”
Racially explicit federal policies have led to residential segregation and a wealth gap between Blacks and whites, Mr. Rothstein said. The most important, according to Mr. Rothstein, was the policy of the U.S. Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA) to move the white working class from urban areas into single-family homes in the suburbs, such as Levittown, east of New York City; Lakewood and Panorama City near Los Angeles; and Westlake and Daly City near San Francisco, and many others. Developers could not have assembled the necessary capital to build such extensive developments on their own and needed public financing. The FHA and VA required developers to place a clause in the deed of homes prohibiting sale, resale, or rentals to African Americans. “This was not the action of rogue bureaucrats at the FHA or VA,” he said. “It was written out in a federal policy manual distributed to appraisers all over the country.” The manual further stated that federal financing guarantees would not be given to integrated developments or even to all-white developments located near an African American neighborhood.
The consequences of this policy can be shown in a gap in wealth decades later, Mr. Rothstein said. Returning white war veterans could
buy a house for about $9,000 at the time, with no down payment and a mortgage that was less than the rent they were paying in public housing. As they built equity, they could send children to college, save for retirement and emergencies, and bequeath wealth to their children and grandchildren. “African Americans were prohibited by federal policy from participating in this wealth-generating exercise,” Mr. Rothstein said. On average, according to Mr. Rothstein, African American family incomes are 60 percent of white incomes, but the wealth disparity is more disparate: African American households have, on average, 7 percent of the wealth of white households.
That enormous gap between a 60 percent income ratio and a 7 percent wealth ratio is entirely attributed to unconstitutional federal housing policies that has never been remedied, that we have never taken as an obligation to remedy. We are clouded by this myth of de facto segregation. We have forgotten this history.
Other federal, state, and local government policies have also created residential segregation, Mr. Rothstein continued. As an example, he explained that public housing began during the New Deal when the private sector was not building residences. The Public Works Administration built housing for working families across the country, and that housing was segregated. In some cities, such as Cleveland, Atlanta, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, housing previously integrated neighborhoods was demolished and gave way to construction of larger, segregated building development. During World War II, when people moved to cities to work in war production factories, the government had to quickly build more housing, which was segregated. This is particularly noteworthy on the West Coast, he commented, which had previously seen less African American migration than other parts of the country.
After World War II, the housing shortage persisted. President Truman proposed an expansion of public housing to provide for returning veterans. Although the rents were not subsidized, conservatives in Congress opposed the government-provided housing because they considered it socialistic, Mr. Rothstein explained. They came up with a legislative strategy, known as a “poison pill,” to insert an amendment in the bill that public housing had to be non-discriminatory, reasoning that the amendment would result in defeat of the overall bill. According to Mr. Rothstein, northern liberals voted against the amendment in order to preserve the chances for the larger
public housing bill to pass. One result is that the federal government used the vote against the non-discrimination amendment as a justification to continue to segregate public housing explicitly for the next 15 years. In one respect, he said, the country is making a similar housing decision today. Faced with a continued shortage of housing that disproportionately affects African American and Hispanic families, federally subsidized affordable housing is built in low-income areas, reinforcing segregation, because it is “easier” than building these homes in high-opportunity neighborhoods where there might be community-organized opposition.
Mr. Rothstein summarized what he said are the consequences of these federal policies of segregation. They include the achievement gap created from concentrating children with low social and economic conditions in single schools; health disparities from living in areas that are more polluted and stressful than where whites live, on average; disproportionate incarceration of African American men who are concentrated in neighborhoods without jobs or transportation to get to jobs in other neighborhoods (not discussed above); the wealth gap described above; and political polarization. “How can we expect to create the common national identity that is necessary to preserve this democracy if so many African Americans and whites live so far from each other?” he asked.
The policies to remedy these consequences are well known to policy makers, Mr. Rothstein asserted. He called for a “new civil rights movement to create the atmosphere to make it uncomfortable to maintain the policies of segregation, just as the past civil rights movement made it uncomfortable to maintain other forms of segregation in the 20th century.” He concluded, “with this much more accurate and passionate public discussion of racial inequality and the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, I am hopeful we can develop a new civil rights movement that will redress residential segregation and take care, at least in part, of the consequences I have described.”
Related to the achievement gap in education, a participant asked Mr. Rothstein about the effect of online learning resulting from COVID-19 school closures. He referred to an article he wrote on this topic (Rothstein, 2020). In addition to a gap in access to computers and high-speed Inter-
net, there are disparities in how parents can help their children with home learning. “The current achievement gap between Black and white children is estimated to be about 2 years of schooling,” he said. “I estimate that the coronavirus will add another half-year.” He called for vastly increased resources to low-income schools to offset the effect of the coronavirus on the achievement gap.
Another participant commented that FHA and VA discrimination is not common knowledge and asked how to increase public understanding of this history. Mr. Rothstein said the way is to learn about the situation and tell others, as he did in his book The Color of Law (Rothstein, 2017). “It is not new history, it is not hidden,” he said. “If we understand that segregation that we see everywhere in the country was created by government, unconstitutionally, with policy, we can understand that policy can do something about it.”
A participant asked Mr. Rothstein’s view of standardized tests that are used to gain entry to magnet schools. He urged an abolishment of standardized tests for admittance, noting that many colleges are making the SAT optional. “I hope that policy and understanding will trickle down to selective high schools,” he said. “These tests are not an accurate measure of student ability to succeed.”
Several questions related to disparities, including the achievement gap, that exist in middle-class African American areas were asked. Mr. Rothstein said African American middle-class households tend to live closer to lower-income neighborhoods than middle-class whites do and are more susceptible to the disadvantages in lower-income neighborhoods. He noted other factors have an impact on middle-class African Americans, including experiences of discrimination and the wealth gap described above.
Mr. Rothstein called for a political force to demand more funding for low-income schools. He clarified that educational funding does not wholly depend on property taxes. “It is not a technical question,” he said. “We know how to redress inequality in housing and schools. We don’t just need equal funding, we need much higher funding for children from lower social class backgrounds, who are predominantly African American and Hispanic. There is a need to create the political environment.”
Rothstein, R. 2017. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing.
Rothstein, R. 2020. The coronavirus will explode achievement gaps in education. Shelter-force: The Voice of Community Development. https://shelterforce.org/2020/04/13/the-coronavirus-will-explode-achievement-gaps-in-education.