Review: The Color of Law

Heraa Hashmi

Once known as the murder capital of the United States, East Palo Alto is cornered by Highway 101. The boom that led people to Silicon Valley largely circumvented the area; yet it is a mere few hundred feet away from Palo Alto, home to Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page. Its assessment as a poor, unsafe area (now facing gentrification) is not incorrect, but it ignores a history of housing discrimination and segregation that has been reinforced by federal and local policies.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein examines such policies. For some, the history of slavery in America ended with the Reconstruction Amendments. While the Civil Rights Act of 1866 affirmed equal protection by law, the Supreme Court interpreted it to allow exclusion from housing markets, as they were not a “badge or incident” of slavery [1]. The Jim Crow laws of the South were one part of the picture. Throughout the 20th century, in both the north and south, repeated attempts to create a second-class of citizens persisted at the hands of leaders, lawmakers, and law enforcement – de jure segregation.

Rothstein argues that while individuals’ racist choices and bigotry led to heinous consequences, the discrimination of the 20th century was reinforced and  institutionalized by the state. 

In the case of Palo Alto, the post-World War II consumer boom industries proved unable to fulfil labour demands with white workers alone, leading them to increasingly hire African Americans. The need for worker’s housing prompted builders to seek approval from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) so they could obtain banks’ low-interest loans. The government would then “guarantee mortgages to qualified buyers without a further property appraisal” [2]. However, the FHA would only subsidize subdivisions for white families, and none of the homes could be sold to African Americans. In addition, to prevent an additional influx of African Americans, police would regularly stop them on the streets to demand proof of employment status or face arrest and jail time [3]. These factors cornered African Americans into desperation with sparse housing options, a situation exploited for profit (African Americans often paid far higher rents than their white counterparts for similar housing [4]).

In the 1950s, a resident in a white-only subdivision in East Palo Alto sold their home to a Black family. In a sordid practice known as blockbusting, the president of the California Real Estate Association immediately set out to panic white families into selling their homes, encouraging the belief that the presence of colored persons lowered property values (ironically, as explained in the book, it was these policies that produced such an effect). In flaming fears of an impending “invasion”, the agents purchased their homes at discounted rates and then sold to African Americans at exorbitant costs, and faced little consequences by the local real estate board.

The FHA would also not insure mortgages for white families in an integrated or Black neighborhood, and other state-regulated insurance companies and banks followed suit. As African Americans doubled and tripled up in their homes to pay the inflated rental costs, the community conditions deteriorated. In essence, “federal state housing policy had created a slum in East Palo Alto” [5].

Similar situations across the U.S. that coordinated the segregation and ghettoisation of African Americans were almost ubiquitous. Racial zoning designated white neighbourhoods as residential, whilst neighbourhoods with African Americans were designated as industrial or commercial, making the latter areas ripe for landfills, toxic waste dumping, and incinerators, further contributing to decaying conditions.

Cities adopted regulations that prevented African Americans from buying homes in or near white neighborhoods, and they were even booted from formerly integrated areas in places like Baltimore. In St. Louis, opening a liquor store or nightclub was not a violation in African American neighbourhoods, but was so in towns with white families due to zoning decisions. Neighbourhood covenants, in which residents agreed upon a clause excluding the purchase of a home by an African American, were enforced by state courts who could evict them.

The construction of the federal highway system also decimated African American neighbourhoods. Though that was not the primary reason for construction, Rothstein notes its racial overlay by citing individuals like Henry Wallace, then the Secretary of Agriculture, who told President Franklin Roosevelt that highways going through cities could also serve in “the elimination of unsightly and unsanitary districts” [6]. Displaced African Americans were further concentrated into extant high-density neighbourhoods and, although disproportionately affected by the highway construction, were given no provisions. Black homeowners who dared purchase a home in a nicer locale usually reserved for white families faced an onslaught of violence: riots of hundreds, firebombing, and arson, exacerbated by law enforcement’s feeble attempts at arrests and investigations.

That African Americans live in these locations only because they simply cannot afford to live elsewhere is a convenient myth. That individuals and private businesses were prejudiced is true, but not the entire picture. Leaders justified their practices of redlining and enforcing racial covenants through rhetoric of “inharmonious racial groups” and “they like to live among themselves”. Such discourse is no less foreign today than it was back then. This language blatantly overlooks the structures that made the equality promised by the Civil Rights Act an impossibility.

By demonstrating the systematic discrimination entrenched in housing law and policy, Rothstein illustrates the complex interplay of government decisions that not only reinforced segregation, but led to a relative lack of intergenerational wealth, and hindered access to better jobs and education. The effects of housing discrimination impacted the ability to thrive in other areas of life, and the consequences exist until this day.

The Color of Law is a book to read for anyone looking to better understand the systemic nature of racism in the U.S. It is important for Muslims, particularly those who are not privy to the experiences of African Americans, to understand how deeply entrenched racism was — and still is — in the interpretation and enforcement of law and to assuage themselves of the illusion of progress in the West. Far from being a neutral standard of justice, such laws institutionalise power relations at the limited discretion of man. The demarcation of American history into a heinous slavery and liberated post-slavery era is inaccurate: Rothstein demonstrates that the vestiges of slavery continue to exist, and the values of equality the U.S. claims on paper are far from realized.

  1. Rothstein, R. (2018). The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, p. ix
  2. Ibid., p. 9
  3. Ibid., p. 8
  4. Ibid., p. 173
  5. Ibid., p. 13 
  6. Ibid., p. 127
Heraa Hashmi is the Marketing Director at Traversing Tradition and is best known for her research project, Muslims Condemn. She is a graduate in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and has also studied linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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