The stunning story of how our government segregated America and shortchanged our schools


By Sabrina Holcomb

In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein vividly describes how segregated neighborhoods—from San Francisco to Boston—were deliberately created by widespread government policies that violated the Constitutional rights of America’s black families. Rothstein, also the author of Class and Schools, talks with NEA Edjustice about how this history has shaped our nation and concentrated generations of black students in underfunded schools.

You’re known for your work on education policy. What compelled you to write a book on housing?

The single biggest cause of the achievement gap is students with economic disadvantages concentrated in the same schools. If I wanted to be an advocate in narrowing the achievement gap, I had to understand residential segregation.

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The revelations in this book are mind-blowing. How familiar are people with this history?

Everybody’s stunned. People think that segregated neighborhoods outside of the South are the result of the private choices and prejudices of millions of people, the actions of private real estate agencies and mortgage lenders, and income disparities.

Didn’t they play a part?

Yes, but they would have had far less opportunity for expression without laws and policy decisions at every level of government that forced segregation on American citizens. Segregation by intentional government action is what the courts call de jure—discrimination enacted by law and public policy.

What’s the most important factor that contributed to the segregation of black and white families?

The 20th century federal government project that created a nationwide system of urban ghettos surrounded by white suburbs. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) subsidized white-only suburbs that prohibited builders from selling homes to African Americans. Even the Veterans Administration refused to finance subdivisions for returning African American war veterans. These two programs effectively created a pattern of segregation throughout the country.

But there’s more?

The FHA not only refused to ensure mortgages for African American families, it prohibited white families from reselling their houses to black buyers. Many African Americans were evicted from homes they had purchased from white families, or they were terrorized into leaving by cross burnings, bombings, and other violent acts that were tolerated, and sometimes promoted, by the police.

Federal housing subsidies for white families who moved to the newly built suburbs were so enormous, they often ended up paying less than they had for the public housing they had moved from. African-American families, forced to double up in segregated public housing units, paid more for their poorly built units than white families paid for their new suburban homes.


What impact did this have on schools?

Overcrowded neighborhoods meant overcrowded schools. City governments also permitted industrial zoning—commercial waste treatment facilities and other polluting industries—that degraded African-American neighborhoods and schools.

As white-owned properties appreciated, tax revenues that funded their schools increased, providing more resources for white students, even as African American students were crowded into underfunded schools. Title I federal funding now gives poorly resourced schools more money but no matter how much you spend, it’s not enough to help an entire school of students coming from concentrated poverty.

Did schools play a role in segregated housing?

In the early 20th century, segregated housing was often forced on people by destroying integrated neighborhoods in the north and south to create patterns of segregation that hadn’t previously existed. Local governments in the south used school siting as a tactic. In Houston, Texas, all of the city’s six wards were integrated, with segregated schools for black and white children sometimes on the same block. The city forced families to move and create newly segregated neighborhoods by closing down old schools in some areas and building new schools in others.

Richard Rothstein

How did housing segregation lead to a critical wealth gap that persists to this day?

African American families have 60 percent of the income of white families but only 7 percent of the wealth. The wealth gap is almost entirely due to federal housing policy. White families were sold affordable houses, often with no down payment required. Over the next few generations they gained hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity in their homes.

Black families desperate for housing had to pay high rents for deteriorating public housing, or buy single-family homes in segregated neighborhoods where they were charged inflated prices, forced to make huge down payments, and denied bank loans. As a result, many lost their houses to foreclosure. These toxic policies still determine today’s racial landscape and they’ve never been remedied.

How can something so complex be remedied?

With the will to change our racial caste system, but that’s only practical if we develop a shared understanding of our common history. When we open our minds to aggressive policies to desegregate, we see the benefits of inclusionary zoning programs in places like Montgomery County, Maryland, where low-income African American children have measurably higher achievement. But remedies are politically unrealistic unless all of us, including educators, do our work.

So educators are part of the solution?

Any remedy starts with creating awareness and knowledge. Our most commonly used textbooks include one paragraph about segregation in the North, with one sentence that says “African Americans found themselves in segregated neighborhoods.” If we continue the myth that this all happened by accident, there’s no getting out of it.

We’re having more honest conversations about race than at any time in the history of our country. Educators can help to expand those conversations. Is it enough?—no. But are we in a better place to advance than ever before?—yes! I find that hopeful.

Institutional racism has an impact on our schools, students, and communities. To start the conversation, see racial justice resources from NEA Edjustice, a lesson plan on the loss of community from Zinn Education Project, and the Racial Wealth Divide Training Guide from United for a Fair Economy.

Reader Comments

  1. So true and this should given to Betty DeVos and other bigots knowing that this isn’t because they are superior to others but they are making their own lie.

  2. Racism is so wrong and yet we have supposedly equal rights in the United States. Boy is that a lie. This article shows how and why we need more diversity in our electing of lawmakers because the ones that have had the wheel and have directed the country in the past, have been criminally negligent. According to our Constitution and the Civil Rights Act.

    1. Thank you Jerry Bierens . . . I totally agree wth our statement here. Blatant lies from the beginning to now. Criminally negligent . . . facts!

  3. I am so depressed by this racist history which punishes black children from getting a decent education! It punishes Black families for the incredibly ridiculous reason that they have a darker skin color. Frankly it is disgraceful and not the so called America so many are proud of! I’m more disappointed than ever I can say. We have a racist President and obviously racist Republican Party encouraging racism. This country is very sick and has been for centuries. .i am profoundly disgusted by this planned “evil”. Americans aren’t who I thought they were. White people are not superior to people of color, that’s a fallacy that whites have invented. I am white, I’ve never believed one group or one religion is better than another. I could just weep!

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