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Credit: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Segregation isn’t in our distant past. In many neighborhoods, it endures

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In schools, racial segregation in the U.S. is often taught as a thing of the past. Textbooks look at the post-Civil War history of Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movement that sought to undo them.

The legacy of those events receives due attention, but our history of residential segregation? Not so much.

“We’ve adopted a national myth that goes something like this: All those forms of segregation that we addressed in the 20th century were the result of government policy, laws, regulations, ordinances," historian Richard Rothstein says. "This one, residential segregation – it just happened by accident.”

Rothstein spoke about this myth at the Elliott Bay Book Company on Dec. 4. But for most of his life, he said, he he knew practically nothing about residential segregation.

Then, in 2007, a Supreme Court decision caught his attention. The ruling opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts claimed school segregation was a side effect of neighborhood segregation. Roberts argued that since said segregation had not been enforced by the government, it did not rise to the level of a civil rights violation.

Rothstein decided to dig into that argument. What he found is now the subject of his book, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”

Talk highlights

On the myth we believe about segregation

What we’ve done – all of us, including myself: African Americans, whites, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives – is we’ve adopted the rationalization to excuse ourselves from continuing the civil rights revolution where it should have lead.

We’ve adopted a national myth that goes something like this: All those forms of segregation that we addressed in the 20th century were the result of government policy, laws, regulations, ordinances. This one, residential segregation – it just happened by accident.

It wasn’t the fault of government. It happened because bigoted home owners wouldn’t sell homes to African Americans in white neighborhoods, or maybe real estate agents and banks, private actors in the private economy discriminated in how they sold homes or issued mortgages. Or maybe it’s just that people of the same race like to live together.

We feel comfortable that way.

This myth we’ve given a name to: de facto segregation. And what happened by accident can only un-happen by accident and we go on our merry ways.

On how post-WWII housing projects created segregation

Here on the West Coast we can clearly say that the government created a pattern of segregation that otherwise would have never existed because there were so few African Americans living here beforehand. There were no patterns, you could not say it was ‘honoring local customs.’

And that’s how we got segregation on the West Coast, was through these war projects that were all segregated.

The ramifications of segregation

The segregation that resulted has led to the achievement gap that I started out being concerned with in schools, by concentrating the most disadvantaged children in single schools.

It’s led to health disparities between African Americans and whites. Many – too many – African Americans live in less healthy neighborhoods with more polluted air, shorter life expectancies, higher rates of heart disease.

It’s led to the criminal violence of police. The police violence could not exist if we weren’t concentrating the most disadvantaged and hopeless young men in single neighborhoods.

I further suggest that the racial segregation that we have today reinforces, if it doesn’t create, the political polarization which is so dangerous to our future as a democratic society, because it tracks so closely on racial lines.

How are we ever going to develop a common national identity if races are living so far apart from one another they have no ability to understand each other’s life experiences.

On what to do about residential segregation

The remedies for this segregation we’ve created are easy. What’s hard is developing the political will and the political support to enact them.

There’s nothing complicated: What was done by policy can be undone by policy. What’s difficult is developing the new civil rights movement that is going to force our government to enact such policies.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and a fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He spoke at The Elliott Bay Book Company on December 4. KUOW’s Sonya Harris recorded the event.

Produced for the web by Kara McDermott.