The Color of Law

The Color of Law

A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Richard Rothstein

Government’s commitment to separating residential areas by race began nationwide following the violent suppression of Reconstruction after 1877. Although the Supreme Court in 1917 forbade the first wave of policies—racial segregation by zoning ordinance—the federal government began to recommend ways that cities could evade that ruling, not only in the southern and border states but across the country. In the 1920s a Harding administration committee promoted zoning ordinances that distinguished single-family from multifamily districts. Although government publications did not say it in as many words, committee members made little effort to hide that an important purpose was to prevent racial integration. Simultaneously, and through the 1920s and the Hoover administration, the government conducted a propaganda campaign directed at white middle-class families to persuade them to move out of apartments and into single-family dwellings. During the 1930s the Roosevelt administration created maps of every metropolitan area, divided into zones of foreclosure risk based in part on the race of their occupants. The administration then insured white homeowners’ mortgages if they lived in all-white neighborhoods into which there was little danger of African Americans moving. After World War II the federal government went further and spurred the suburbanization of every metropolitan area by guaranteeing bank loans to mass-production builders who would create the all-white subdivisions that came to ring American cities. In 1973, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that the “housing industry, aided and abetted by Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing. . . . Government and private industry came together to create a system of residential segregation.”

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