Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

The government engineered Seattle's racial segregation, says researcher

Seattle's neighborhoods and suburbs have long been segregated by race.

That was no accident – it was carefully engineered by the government, says Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and the author of a new book, "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America."

ROTHSTEIN: We have a national myth that segregation is what we call de facto: the result of personal preference, or private prejudice, or differences in income.

But in fact, while certainly private prejudice and differences in income and personal preference and discrimination by private real estate actors are all present, none of those would have been as powerful in segregating metropolitan areas if it weren’t for the policies of the federal, state and local governments.

Not incidental effects of policies that weren’t racial, but racially explicit policies by the federal and lower levels of government designed to segregate metropolitan areas.

Related: A KUOW listener asks, Why is Seattle so racially segregated?

DORNFELD: What's one example?

ROTHSTEIN: In the 1940s and 1950s, the federal government, through the Federal Housing Administration, guaranteed bank loans to mass-production builders.

In places like Seattle, it was William and Bertha Boeing who were large developers. They guaranteed bank loans to large-scale developers to build entire subdivisions on the condition that no homes be sold to African-Americans. This was a federal government policy, and it was done all over the country.

Seattle was one place, but New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, Baltimore – every metropolitan area in the country was suburbanized in the 1950s by a federal policy to deny African-Americans access to suburbs.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when those homes were first built, those homes were selling for about $7,000, $8,000, $9,000 a piece. In today’s dollars, that’s about $100,000 a piece. Today those homes sell for $400,000, $500,000, perhaps more in Seattle. The white families who were subsidized by the federal government to move to those homes in the 1940s, '50s and even '60s, gained over the course of subsequent generations some $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 in home equity.

The African-Americans, who were forced to remain in urban areas, in central cities, because they were prohibited effectively by the federal government from moving to the suburbs that the government had created, gained none of that equity. They were paying rent.

To remedy that requires more than simply saying that it’s no longer permitted to discriminate against African-Americans. To remedy that, the movement of African-Americans to those suburbs from which they were once excluded will have to be subsidized by the federal government in order to undo the segregationist policies they pursued in the 20th century.

That is politically inconceivable today, in large part because policymakers, and even liberal policymakers, even in an administration that was committed to integration, are under the mistaken belief that the federal, state and local governments had nothing to do with this segregation.

Top read: A man shouts racial slurs in a Seattle Starbucks. The silence is deafening

DORNFELD: What can the government realistically do to integrate cities?

ROTHSTEIN: There are two important policies the federal government now follows in the housing field. One is called the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. It's a tax credit program of the Treasury Department that subsidizes by giving tax credits to developers of low-income housing.

Today, throughout the country, low-income housing tax credit developments are placed primarily in already-segregated neighborhoods. They reinforce segregation. And the reason they are placed in already-segregated neighborhoods is because the land is cheaper, because there’s no community opposition to them, it’s easier for developers to get permits in already-segregated neighborhoods to build housing for low-income families.

That’s a policy that could be changed. The states could require that developers of projects financed with low-income housing tax credits be placed in middle-class neighborhoods to integrate those neighborhoods.

The other federal program that's operated is something that's popularly known as the Section 8 housing voucher program. This is a program that subsidizes the rents of low-income families so they can afford to rent apartments at market rates.

But the subsidies are calculated based on metro-wide averages. That means the subsidies are actually more than is required to rent apartments in low-income, segregated neighborhoods where the rents are lower, and they're not sufficient to rent apartments in middle-class neighborhoods where the rents are higher.

In its waning days, the Obama administration adopted a rule that applied to a number of cities and metropolitan areas nationwide that required the subsidies be calculated in smaller areas so that families could move to higher-income neighborhoods and would get a higher subsidy for doing so. Whether the Trump administration will enforce this rule is yet to be seen, but I hope they do.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ann Dornfeld can be reached at Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.

Why you can trust KUOW