The color of law : a forgotten history of how our government segregated America

by Richard Rothstein

Paper Book, 2018


Sociology. Nonfiction. In this groundbreaking history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, explodes the myth that America's cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation-that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation-the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments-that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day. Through extraordinary revelations and extensive research that Ta-Nehisi Coates has lauded as "brilliant" (The Atlantic), Rothstein comes to chronicle nothing less than an untold story that begins in the 1920s, showing how this process of de jure segregation began with explicit racial zoning, as millions of African Americans moved in a great historical migration from the south to the north. As Jane Jacobs established in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, it was the deeply flawed urban planning of the 1950s that created many of the impoverished neighborhoods we know. Now, Rothstein expands our understanding of this history, showing how government policies led to the creation of officially segregated public housing and the demolition of previously integrated neighborhoods. While urban areas rapidly deteriorated, the great American suburbanization of the post-World War II years was spurred on by federal subsidies for builders on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans. Finally, Rothstein shows how police and prosecutors brutally upheld these standards by supporting violent resistance to black families in white neighborhoods. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited future discrimination but did nothing to reverse residential patterns that had become deeply embedded. Yet recent outbursts of violence in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, and Minneapolis show us precisely how the legacy of these earlier eras contributes to persistent racial unrest. "The American landscape will never look the same to readers of this important book" (Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund), as Rothstein's invaluable examination shows that only by relearning this history can we finally pave the way for the nation to remedy its unconstitutional past.… (more)



Call number



New York ; London : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Media reviews

But since American schools don’t teach the true history of systemic racial segregation, Rothstein asks, “Is it any wonder [students] come to believe that African-Americans are only segregated because they don’t want to marry or because they prefer to live only among themselves?” Only when
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Americans learn a common—and accurate—history of our nation’s racial divisions, he contends, will we then be able to consider steps to fulfill our legal and moral obligations. For the rest of us, still trying to work past 40 years of misinformation, there might not be a better place to start than Rothstein’s book.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member anna_in_pdx
This book was recommended by a guy who testified at our City Council. He provided annotated copies to all our councilmembers. I was so impressed I went straight to the library and got a copy.

The book is about the US government's direct involvement in US housing segregation history. Its central
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thesis is that our current narrative assumes that housing segregation is a "de facto" issue brought about largely because of individual / local expressions of racism, when the reality is that it is a "de jure" decision made by federal, state and local governments over a long historical period. It is very convincing and well-argued.

The final chapter contains several ideas for reducing the levels of segregation in American cities and suburbs.
• Educate people that segregation was purposeful and government-incentivized and funded (current K-12 materials on American history make it sound like it was just due to the attitudes of residents rather than actual rules, regulations and laws)
• Revive George Romney’s idea from the 70s about denying HUD funds to any jurisdictions that exacerbate or prolong segregation through exclusionary zoning (“Open Communities”)
• Protect the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (sort of on the back burner in Trump/Carson admin but can be revived)
• Federal subsidies for African American homeownership programs for specifically highly white communities
• Ban zoning ordinances that prohibit multifamily housing or mandate large lot sizes
• Require inclusionary zoning (Portland a bit ahead of the curve here)
• “Fair Share Act” to require states to establish mechanisms to ensure that every jurisdiction houses a representative share of African Americans and low income people
• Increase Section 8 subsidies to African Americans renting in high rent communities and increase vouchers to all who qualify (as we do for the mortgage income deduction which applies to everyone and is not first-come-first-serve)

For all who are interested in the US housing sector and racial equity, I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
Rothstein had me for the first 80% of this book. He effectively explains why segregation in the US was de jure and not de facto (notwithstanding the incorrect words of our esteemed Chief Justice who has stated that discrimination in housing is de facto.) I don't want to go all law school on
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everyone, but this is an essential distinction. Basically, de facto segregation means that, yes there is segregation, but it just happened as a side effect of other things, it was not a result of state action, and de jure segregation means that the government took action and created policies and laws with the goal of segregating people based on race. That is a huge distinction. Rothstein has provided a thorough and crushing account of the many ways in which the US government created segregation and continued down that path until it was so entrenched that it became economically impossible for black Americans to ever catch up to white Americans in terms of personal net worth. Yes, anecdotally there are exceptions to that rule, but practically because of the way in which real property has appreciated since the 1930s, and because that is where the majority of middle-class American personal wealth resides, even if we were to fix all the other racist systems at work in America the median personal wealth of black Americans will never catch up to white Americans. The way that this happened is shocking and Rothstein's positions are well supported.

So, what happened in the last 20% of the book? Rothstein started talking about solutions. Some are sensible and being used in some cities (though the numbers need to go up.) He talks some about fair share laws, which require developers to set aside a certain number of housing units in new developments for low (or at least lower) income residents. These programs, where they exist (and they should be expanded) are all based on income rather than race. Rothstein would like to see that change. Race based fair share laws though are unlikely to withstand constitutional scrutiny. Whether they would withstand scrutiny is a question that will likely never be answered because to be subjected to scrutiny Congress would have to pass legislation requiring developers to set aside x% of all new units for black people and to charge less for those units. That is NEVER going to happen. Rothstein makes even more farfetched suggestions like setting a minimum number of housing units in an existing community which must be owned by black people and if that number is not met everyone who lives in that community loses their mortgage deduction. You want to see revolution in the streets in America? Take away the mortgage deduction. For middle income Americans the mortgage deduction is the only thing that makes home ownership possible - with wage stagnation most people who have mortgages would not be able to pay them as well as taxes without the deduction. It is a suggestion that leaves the wealthy in homes they own and acquire equity in and pushes lower and middle income homeowners into rentals where they get no equity or onto the streets. It creates MORE poor people. It is stupid, and it is also unconstitutionally broad. The truth is that there are no ways to address the past government wrongs or the current inequality that was caused by those wrongs in any sweeping way that would ever pass through Congress, and if there was it would almost certainly fail in the courts on constitutional grounds. I know I am supposed to be all "40 acres and a mule" but its not feasible. I mean how would someone even go about proving they are entitled to compensation? Do they have to prove that their grandparents tried to buy a home and the FHA rules that allowed funds only to white people were the reason they did not. Or that their grandparents were closed out of buying in better parts of town, farther from railroad tracks and chemical plants, due to covenants required by the FHA? Or are we just going to say that compensation goes to all black people? What if I am African or West Indian and my family came to the US after the end of de jure segregation? Do I still qualify for compensation? What if I had a black forbearer but have always identified as white? Anyway, this stuff is crazy pants. Also, Rothstein's epilogue where he "responds" to questions like this is silly. It all comes down to "suck it up." Look, I get that its not very helpful to people who have been historically and irreparably held back from economic success for us to understand what happened and to acknowledge that it is yet another shameful chapter in the history of America. I do think there are some small things that can be done, and I think we all need to push our legislators to embrace things like fair share legislation and require landlords to rent to section 8 tenants in all of their buildings and not just those units in poor neighborhoods. These things make a difference. But we also need to face that we cannot fully erase the impact of our past wrongs. There are things that cannot be undone. I am not abdicating responsibility, I am suggesting that we all accept that affirmative action policies in housing, education and employment are essential, and that as allies we push to strengthen those polices after years of erosion. If that inconveniences those of us who are white that is something we have to suck up (unlike a policy that steals our homes, which we do not have to suck up.) The fact that at the time much of this was happening my own relatives were busy having their property seized by Lithuania, Latvia and Poland because they were Jews, and then later after having been sent to Siberia they were busy getting murdered by Lenin in the pogroms, that doesn't mean that I don't need to sacrifice to begin to right this ship. Still, we can't undo what was done and some professor ranting about what we need to do even if it violates the constitution and dispossesses many Americans isn't helpful. Those problems with the ending in no way rob the book of its value. There is so much in here Americans all need to know, and every American (or any person interested in America) should read this.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
If you think that segregation in the US persisted mostly because of private discrimination, you are wrong; even if you don’t, you may be surprised by the pervasive involvement of federal, state and local governments in creating and maintaining segregation and the economic disenfranchisement of
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African-Americans. For example, World War II defense projects “played a particularly important role in segregating urban areas … where few African Americans had previously lived. In some cities, the government provided war housing only for whites, leaving African Americans in congested slums.” In 1960, Savannah evicted all white families from an integrated housing project, arguing that “whites could easily find homes elsewhere.” In Miami, “African Americans eligible for public housing were assigned to distinct projects while eligible whites were given vouchers for rentals of private apartments to subsidize their dispersal throughout the community. It was not until 1998 that civil rights groups won a requirement that vouchers be offered to African Americans as well—too late to reverse the city’s segregation.” And on and on. In St. Louis, as elsewhere, zoning boards made exceptions to residential neighborhood rules “to permit dangerous or polluting industry to locate in African American areas.” Or, if integration threatened, areas would be rezoned by localities or land condemned to prevent integrated areas from being built. The University of Chicago, supported by tax exemptions, engaged in an expensive, successful campaign to maintain segregation around its environs. In Houston, the famously “unzoned” city, city planners separated previously adjacent black and white schools to different sides of the city to make families choose “their” side.

Further afield, government supported private attempts to limit African-American incomes through racially segregated unions and otherwise. In 1942, the feds took over training agencies, “which generally refused to enroll African Americans in training for skilled work. [The federal agency’s] instructions to local offices advised that if a company failed to specify a racial exclusion in its request for workers, the office should solicit one.” Property taxes tend to be overassessed in black neighborhoods and underassessed in white ones, ensuring again that it’s expensive to be black.

Ending overt discrimination has come too late: the structural advantage that white families got from buying a suburban house for $8000 ($75,000 in today’s dollars) has become embedded in white wealth. Rothstein argues for generally progressive policies to start addressing these problems, but I liked his off-the-wall proposal that “the federal government should purchase the next 15 percent of houses that come up for sale in Levittown at today’s market rates (approximately $ 350,000). It should then resell the properties to qualified African-Americans for $75,000, the price (in today’s dollars) that their grandparents would have paid if permitted to do so.” The epilogue discusses various objections about white innocence and the admitted disruption that would take place if we tried to fix things—ending with the powerful point that creating the current segregation required a lot of social engineering, and it’s a bit rich (so to speak) to reject government intervention now to fix it.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Segregation continues to be the rule in the United States today as most neighborhoods, cities, and suburbs are greatly tilted to be either mostly white or mostly African American. Politicians, pundits, and everyday people consider this de facto segregation, based on the choices of individuals to
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live among people of "their own kind," or credit the wealth disparity that prevents Blacks from affording to live in white areas.

In this book, Rothstein argues that this common wisdom is all wrong. He argues, with lots of evidence provided, that in the past 100 years, the Federal, state, and local governments have created de jure segregation of housing. By historically being shut out from housing opportunities offered to whites, African Americans were unable to build equity and create generational wealth to pass on to later generations, contributing to the prosperity gap that exists today. The places where Blacks and whites live today were created by the de jure segregation laws of the past, and laws against discrimination are only half-measures in that they do not undo the damage done in the past.

Here are some of the ways in which the government segregated housing detailed in the book:

  • Federal Housing Authority subsidizes housing in whites-only subdivisions.

  • FHA enables redlining by refusing to insure African American mortgages.

  • FHA regulations for segregation actually written into widely-distributed manuals. Local projects that intended to be integrated could be forced to follow these Federal regulations.

  • Public housing projects built for whites were larger and better resourced, while separate public housing for Blacks were usually smaller and something of an afterthought. White projects often had vacancies while Black projects had waiting lists.

  • Property taxes overassesed in Black neighborhoods and underaccessed in white neighborhoods, adding to the burden of making ends meet for Black families.

  • Government programs that enabled whites to buy homes in the suburbs not available to Blacks. A generation of African Americans ended up trapped in decaying cities, far away from good jobs that had also moved to the suburbs.

  • Restrictive covenants that prohibit Blacks from moving into white neighborhoods granted legal protection.

  • Highway projects deliberately targeted Black neighborhoods for construction, demolishing viable communities and creating barriers around what remained (while at the same time benefiting prosperous white car owners commuting between city and suburbs).

  • Police and governments allow and abet violence by whites against Blacks who move into white neighborhoods. If fact, Black victims more likely to be charged with a crime if any legal action is taken at all.

  • IRS maintains tax exemptions for organizations that fund segregated housing.

  • Housing segregation serves as a stumbling block to integration of schools.

  • Government aware that Black home buyers were being targeted for risky subprime mortgages but fail to act on regulations to protect them.

  • Section 8 vouchers restrict African Americans to housing located only in poor, African American neighborhoods

Rothstein also offers a final chapter with several solutions to segregation and inequality in the United States:

  • Education - this book is a good start to countering the widespread belief in de facto segregation based on individual's preferences and prejudices. The history of the government's support for funding and requiring segregation must also be taught in schools.

  • Revive George Romney's proposals to deny HUD funds to any communities that use exclusionary zoning to enable housing segregation.

  • Use the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing of the Fair Housing Act to rectify barriers to desegregation of housing.

  • Subsidies for African American homebuyers in predominately white areas (in a sense, restitution for their parents, grandparents, great-parents being unable to buy homes in these areas back when whites purchased homes at bargain rates).

  • End zoning regulations that prohibit multifamily housing or require large lots.

  • Promote inclusionary zoning.

  • “Fair Share Act” to require states to establish mechanisms to ensure that every jurisdiction houses a representative share of African Americans and low income people.

  • Allow African Americans to use Section 8 subsidies in areas with higher rents, and model Section 8 programs on the mortgage income deduction which applies to all rather than being first-come, first-serve.

This is a powerful and important book and should be read by all Americans who care about creating a just and equitable country.
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LibraryThing member larryerick
This is a solid contribution to documentation of the black experience in America. I would add it to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, Douglas Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name, and Ari Berman's Give Us the Ballot (with a notable assist from Carol Anderson's One Person, No Vote), for essential
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reading about all the ways white America has made and continues to make black America "less than" since, supposedly, black American's were made free to do what ever any other citizen was free to do. The author is very systematic and concise in showing both the data and the anecdotes that reveal layer after layer -- or is it tentacle after tentacle? -- of how America has short-changed a large portion of its population, in housing. Toward the end of the book, the author suffers a bit from what others sometimes do also, namely, after making a great case for what was done wrong, flounders to be as precise in what should be done about it. Ultimately, the author does give a fairly short, but quite effective recipe of solutions. There is not a lot of detail, but the proposed responses are so spot-on, any well-versed person(s) of authority should know instinctively what to do next. The most questionable factor is, of course, the courage to move forward...especially in today's hotbed of American social debate, where militaristic police force is used to move peaceful protesters so someone can walk across the street and hold up a Bible in front of a church that he hasn't been to in a year. We have a lot to work on...still.
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LibraryThing member forsanolim
I'm frankly shocked and appalled that I wasn't aware of the material covered in this book. In it, Rothstein lives up to the subtitle, "a forgotten history of how our government segregated America," in examining the government-policy-led and -influenced factors that underlay the "white flight"
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phenomenon. My high-school history classes touched briefly on "white flight," mentioning that white homeowners, who could afford to, moved en masse to the suburbs after World War II. However, as this book pretty pointedly demonstrates, there was much more to this than that one-sentence summary would suggest. From explicitly racist zoning laws to the denial of Fair Housing Act mortgage insurance to African American homebuyers to the court enforcement of "restrictive deed covenants" that prohibited homeowners from selling their homes to African Americans (and much more), policies at all levels of the government conspired to bring this situation about. I'd strongly recommend it as a look at a portion of American history that, at least in my own experience, is truly "forgotten" or never taught at all.
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LibraryThing member foof2you
Just by reading the preface I learned thing I did not know. This is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. There is so much information about a period in American history that shaped many of the inequities in housing and wealth.
LibraryThing member Sheila1957
Interesting book on how the government ignored the Constitution to create segregate communities of African-Americans and Caucasians. I learned a lot and much made me angry. He gives the history of how and when this happened and remedies to correct the past. At times I didn't understand but he wrote
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so that I could understand the concept. He documents everything. I especially liked the FAQ section. Worth reading.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
An essential yet dry recitation of wrongs done to African Americans since Civil War times. In addition to the usual suspects of the racist South, the stances of seemingly liberal politicians and Supreme Court justices are also explored. Kudos to the author for all the research he did into this most
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critical of subjects. The best part is the FAQs, which consist mostly of whites trying to remove their own guilt and deny their privilege about forcing black citizens into ghettos.
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LibraryThing member annbury
A great and necessary book.He has convinced me that the government did do this
stuff, mostly segregate the blacks from everybody else. But. he does not indicate where they got their prejudice from/? When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx, the city planned to distribute housing for blacks
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throughout the Bronx; the reaction was sudden and amazing. We did not want these people anywhere near us, and the program was canceled. The solutions that Rothstein proposes are reasonable. We owe these people a ton.
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LibraryThing member dougcornelius
The book, although perhaps not a true believer, accepts the legal standard that there is a constitutional obligation to remedy the effects of government sponsored segregation, but not a constitutional obligation to remedy of private discrimination.

It then goes on to eviscerate the foundations of
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private discrimination to show that so much of it was because of government sponsored segregation.

Until 1968, housing segregation was explicitly permitted and at times required by the federal government. Redlining by banks was because the government program backstopping the loans required it.

The book is a compelling read.
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LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
Lots of insights...and a lot of history about social policy an housing that I wasn't aware of. Roth-stein did a nice job of explaining how good intentions can have unintended consequences.
LibraryThing member eas7788
In no way a fun or easy read, but he makes his case. Clear, compelling, persuasive. His examples, while not exactly vivid and well-illustrated as in more narrative-focused history, are well-chosen. An important book.
LibraryThing member aevaughn
The Color of Law details the history of segregation both in law and in fact. In addition, he discusses what would need to be done to rectify certain parts of this injustice.
LibraryThing member caanderson
This book details how neighborhoods were designed to keep POC out. I documents builders, home owners, city leaders, HUD, and the police discriminated against Blacks in America. The laws in place were ignored in favor of keeping neighborhoods with mostly white people and concentrating Blacks into
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small communities.
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LibraryThing member Dreesie
This book should be required reading in all American high schools. I could argue forever if this history is really "forgotten"--I certainly learned the basics 30 years ago as a college history major--but based on the local mom's group I am reading this, most people do not know. (Unless they studied
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American history or social work or urban studies in college, or are black Americans.)

This book felt rather repetitive while I was ready, but it kind of needs to be. Rothstein does a great job of setting out his thesis--that American residential segregation is de jure, not de facto as is often claimed by media, residents, and even the supreme court. He then proves it, looking at the FHA and VA loans, public housing, suburban developments, public schools, unions and membership rules, local housing laws, and police/court actions. He proves that resdiential segregation is, in fact, a result of top-down regulations that prevented African-Americans from getting FHA or VA loans, prevented blacks from living in covenanted all-white neighborhoods (which was required for developers to get loans to build), required union membership for skilled jobs but disallowed blacks from being union members, destroyed black neighborhoods for "redevelopment", created segregated public housing, adjusted school residential boundaries that put black and white neighborhoods in different school and made sure the college prep schools were the white ones, and so on and on and on.

Some of the laws permitting these actions were overturned in the 50s, others in the 60s, but it was not until around 1970 that enforcement became a thing. And all of these factors can still be seen today. Covenanted white neighborhoods saw much greater increases in value than black areas, creating generational wealth that black families--including middle-class black families--were excluded from. Black students were sent into working-class jobs, white students went to college prep high schools, creating another layer of wealth growth over time.

His "Considering Fixes" chapter has some interesting ideas. Clearly the Section 8 voucher program needs serious revamping. Real estate agents and appraisers continue to push people into the neighborhoods they think are "right" for them. The 2008 subprime loan crash also largely involved African-Americans and Latinos who were targeted for those loans and thus most impacted. The government needs to stop these actions, as they are required to do by law.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
We, white people, have so much to atone for! Where to begin? Let's wipe these laws out and teach our children differently!
LibraryThing member arosoff
This is a must read for understanding how our cities and towns became racially segregated, and how this was explicit government policy. Many of us have some idea of how it happened--steering, redlining. Rothstein carefully puts the pieces together so that we see how different policies--some
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explicitly racial, some apparently neutral but with hidden intent--combined to not only create segregated neighborhoods, but to segregate existing ones. For example, in order to keep black families out, towns would only permit the building of single family homes. Since black families could not get a mortgage--the FHA guidelines made it impossible--such an ordinance guaranteed that a neighborhood would remain white only. These actions set up housing patterns that persist to this day. Just as importantly, this was just as rampant in the North and West as it was in the South. Today, some of the most segregated suburbs in the country are just outside of NYC.

Rothstein also goes into some possible solutions, though I think the history is the most important part of the book.
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LibraryThing member addunn3
If you don't think racism is/was systemic and supported by government throughout the US, you need to read this book!
LibraryThing member suesbooks
I was glad to read this book, but felt it was for a legal audience rather than ordinary civilians. I was interested in the role of the government in the segregation of America and disgusted by the details. I am not optimistic, but I had hoped Rothstein would provide some suggestions for dealing
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with situation to be fair to those harmed.
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LibraryThing member Grace.Van.Moer
Eye opening and disheartening.
LibraryThing member SignoraEdie
Compelling research of racially explicit government policies to segregate our metropolitan areas beginning in the 1920's supports the argument of the construction of de jure segregation, the causal link to the residential segregation that is now in our neighborhoods (and local schools).
LibraryThing member Andjhostet
A good book, and a really important topic that doesn't get enough attention. Black people have been put into a severe disadvantage due to governmentally enforced segregation, and it has awful effects that need to be reversed if this country wants to pretend it gives anything resembling a fair shot
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to all races.

In this book, Rothstein extensively details a pattern of state sponsored segregation, from the federal level, state level, county and cities.

It is an important distinction, because legal cases for forced integration, or damages claimed from segregation, have been struck down on the grounds that the state has not taken part in it, which is obviously and demonstratively false.

The book did get a little long winded at times, repeating case after case where the government had a hand. I understand the point of it, but it wasn't incredibly engaging at times.

At the end of the book, Rothstein suggested ways of moving forward, and promoting integration. I was a bit disappointed by this section. I wish it were a little more fleshed out. I also wish it weren't so pessimistic. It felt like most of the suggestions were immediately struck down with "but this would never happen in today's political climate". If there's no chance of positive change happening, what's the entire point of this book? It felt a bit defeatist, and a bit of a bummer, and what should have been an optimistic way to end a long bummer of a book.
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National Book Award (Longlist — Nonfiction — 2017)
Commonwealth Club of California Book Awards (Gold Medal — Nonfiction — 2018)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — History — 2017)
SCRIBES Book Award (Honorable Mention — Honorable Mention — 2018)
Brooklyn Public Library Book Prize (Longlist — Nonfiction — 2017)


Original publication date



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