The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book Review:
The Color of Law

Jun 19, 2017

The Color of Law, a new book by Richard Rothstein, explains how the U.S. federal government – since the 1880s – repeatedly used the U.S. legal system to promote residential segregation in the North, and everywhere else in the U.S.

The book explains that black and white people living in separate neighborhoods in the U.S. did not happen "naturally" because of ordinary people's prejudices.

The author calls it, "A forgotten history of how our government segregated America." The book outlines the history of laws and bureaucracies that made it nearly impossible for black and white people to live side-by-side.

One glaring example of the federal government separating black and white people happened in 1913. Then President Wilson ordered black and white federal office workers to stop working together. He ordered separate offices, bathrooms, cafeterias, etc.

Around this time, an advisory council – that included future president Franklin D. Roosevelt – was set up to promote segregation in housing. A wave of black migration was hitting northern cities from the south. The council put together a guidebook on how to use zoning laws to keep black people living in all black neighborhoods.

In conjunction, the National Board of Realtors created a "code of ethics." It said the only "ethical" thing to do was to keep the races separate!

The author explains that this was followed by a federal policy decision to promote home ownership. It was implemented in racist ways – time and again – for decades to come. "Terrified by the 1917 Russian revolution, government officials came to believe that communism could be defeated in the United States by getting as many white Americans as possible to become homeowners — the idea being that those who owned property would be invested in the capitalist system."

Through many different means that are detailed in the book, integrated neighborhoods that already existed were broken up over time. Sometimes "vigilante" mob violence was used to reinforce segregation. The authorities never prosecuted the perpetrators. By not punishing, the government sanctioned these activities.

Government-backed segregation reached its peak with the massive growth of suburbs that followed World War II. Suburbs were only able to be constructed because of bank loans insured by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA). Since both agencies required that loans could only be guaranteed if housing was 100 percent segregated, the role of the federal government in promoting segregation becomes obvious.

The book does an excellent job of explaining how segregation flowed from federal policy and how this history continues to be "hidden."

The author concludes that the U.S. government needs to be forced to follow its own constitution and bill of rights to solve the problem of racist federal policies. But in fact, racism is so integral to the U.S. capitalist economy, it's not going to be eradicated except by revolution – as this book itself shows.

This is a powerful book that everyone should read.