Book Review: The Color of Law

Color of Law cover

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein is book that takes a long hard look at how the US government at all levels has created segregated communities for African Americans. This book starts with the passing of the thirteenth amendment ending Slavery and continues to the present day and makes clear that current residential segregation did not “just happen” but was caused by active government policies

Rothstein is lawyer working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who became interested in this topic as a result of Chief Justice Roberts’ ruling in  Parents Involved in Community Schools v Seattle School District where Roberts stated that the neighborhood segregation which led to school segregation was “not traceable” to government action and therefore the government was not required to remedy it by taking race into account when assigning students to to schools. Rothstein suspected that Roberts was mistaken and researched the history of government involvement in racial segregation in the US and wrote this book

What’s great about this book but also makes it tough to read is how thoroughly it explores the topic of residential segregation. The book discusses how segregation happened all over the US. It covers zoning laws, red lining, white flight and even ways the government has suppressed the income of African Americans making it tough for them to buy into middle class neighborhoods. In some cases the sheer pettiness of the government made me extremely angry.

Rothstein’s legal background shows throughout the book. He continually focuses on the constitutional necessity to provide remedies to African Americans affected by unjust government policies. However for planners working at the local level the book does not offer many ideas about what can be done improve the situation, though it does provide a strong reminder to consider possible “disparate impacts” of local planning policy.

This is an important an infuriating book and you should read it you are at all interested in racial justice in the US. It’s imperative that we don’t assume that the current state of residential segregation was created without government intervention, and this book shows why that assumption would be false.

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