Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” should be required reading for YIMBYs and urbanists of any ideological stripe. Rothstein argues that housing segregation in the US has been the intentional outcome of policy decisions made at every level of government and that the idea of segregation as phenomenon driven by spontaneous self-sorting is largely a myth.
Two major themes permeate the book: (1) the ways in which government has consistently intervened in the housing and land markets and (2) how these interventions were designed to pick winners and losers. The federal policy of underwriting loans for specific kinds of development (single family detached housing) and for specific people (whites) is an example that the author explores in depth. And after reading his account, I can safely say that I have a far better understanding of how nearly a century’s worth of policy interference has distorted markets and doled out privilege and oppression in equal measure.
Throughout the book, Rothstein brings in the stories of specific people and places to add depth to his account. This both keeps things interesting and serves to humanize the story in a way that many tracts on policy fail to do. When he’s describing the lives of black Americans who were forced into soul crushing commutes because they were legally prohibited from living near their jobs, or families who had their houses firebombed for daring to move into a segregated neighborhood while police stood on their front lawns and watched…you remember that policy matters because it affects real people. And that real people suffered terrible wrongs for no other reason than the accident of their birth.
Again, if you care about US housing policy, you must read this book. It’s impossible to understand where we are today without retracing the steps we took to get here and it’s been some time since I’ve read anything that accomplishes this so well as Rothstein’s The Color of Law.