The Color of Law & Residential Segregation: A “Walking Toward Justice” Webinar

A conversation about how to have uncomfortable conversations, moderated by Charles T. Brown

Redlining, the practice of denying loans to communities of color in the 1930s, was one of many ways segregation was embedded in the DNA of cities and continues to shape their growth and development today. Source: HOLC
Redlining, the practice of denying loans to communities of color in the 1930s, was one of many ways segregation was embedded in the DNA of cities and continues to shape their growth and development today. Source: HOLC

On Wednesday, September 27, America Walks hosted a wide-ranging discussion of Richard Rothstein’s important and timely book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Government Segregated America, moderated by Charles Brown (Senior Researcher with the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center), and featuring author Rothstein (research associate at the Economic Policy Institute), Tamika Butler (Executive Director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust),┬áSonia Jimenez (Business Manager and Lead Consultant of Ximenes & Associates, Inc.), and myself (Communities Editor at Streetsblog L.A.). The webinar was the first in America Walks’ new series, “Walking Toward Justice,” developed in collaboration with Brown in an effort to provide an open forum for exploration of the intersection of history, race, class, gender, and politics with mobility.

The webinar opened, as one might expect, with a straightforward discussion of the core thesis of the book and its myriad implications for planning.

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For those that haven’t read The Color of Law, it addresses the myth that the current forms of segregation we see in our metropolitan areas evolved naturally and therefore cannot be remedied through policy. Instead, Rothstein argues, segregation is the product of explicit federal, state, and local policy designed to both insulate whites from blacks and other non-whites and give whites a leg up in the process.

Evidence for this thesis is meticulously detailed on page after page: how integrated or non-white neighborhoods were demolished to make way for the construction of public housing for middle-class whites during the Great Depression and, later, freeways; how mortgages were denied to blacks and other members of “inharmonious” groups, including black veterans returning from war; how developers were able to get federally guaranteed loans to build entire subdivisions on the condition that the homes would never be sold or rented to African Americans; how local authorities looked the other way when black families’ homes were fire-bombed; and how blacks were denied opportunities for wealth accumulation via home ownership or gainful employment. The resulting yawning gap between black and white wealth, Rothstein says, must be attributed to the denial of home ownership to African Americans.

It’s a damning look at what the effort to institutionalize and uphold white supremacy hath wrought.

Whether this history is truly “forgotten,” as the book’s subtitle suggests, or one that we, as a nation, have conveniently pretended not to remember, it is one that – thanks to the way that these policies flouted the protections embedded within the 5th, 13th, and 14th amendments, Rothstein argues – we are constitutionally obligated to remedy.

To right these historical wrongs, he makes clear again and again, we must first acknowledge them.

On this, Rothstein couldn’t be more correct, the panelists agreed, while expressing enthusiasm for a book that had shone such a clear light on the history of how our metropolitan areas came to be.

Over the course of the hour-and-a-half-long webinar, however, it became very clear that determining exactly what the full scope of those wrongs were and how we might go about confronting them is complicated. And that one’s positioning in relation to those wrongs can have a significant impact on how one defines them as well as the kinds of solutions one might deem appropriate.

When asked how white privilege intersected with the privileges that had been deliberately accorded to whites, for example, Rothstein said that he did not use that term and did not focus on it.

“We’re all in this together,” he said, explaining that he did not find it productive to cast blame. It would be impossible to build the coalition needed to correct these injustices, he continued, by making others “feel guilty for policies they are not responsible for.”

Certainly, white families had benefited, he acknowledged. “But it wasn’t their fault.”

It was a surprising statement given the history that Rothstein himself had laid out within the book.

White citizens had fire-bombed the homes of black families, protested the integration of schools, signed contracts agreeing never to sell their homes to African Americans, found creative ways to zone their communities, sued their neighbors for selling to black families, formed roving gangs to harass and beat up folks of color, chased blacks out of sundown towns and denied them services, and lobbied to protect their own communities from environmental harm, among many other things. The policies that facilitated segregation were neither self-generating nor self-sustaining. And the larger system those policies helped build could never have denied rights to African Americans so successfully for so long without both active and passive buy-in from the very community that expected to reap benefits from it.

fremont 1947
From the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: “Students of Fremont High School [a school located just outside a red-lined zone in South Central Los Angeles], scene of an anti-Negro demonstration, are shown as they tried to get in the school today.” The day before, students had hung an effigy from a nearby lamp post to protest the matriculation of six black students that read, “We’re back again and we still don’t want N*ggers.” Photo dated: March 18, 1947. Source: LAPL Collection
Even webinar attendees were quick to note the disconnect.

Brown read a comment from one such viewer who stated unequivocally, “To deny white privilege when you studied policies to demonstrate how white people have been privileged is absurd.”

Which, of course, it is.

Whiteness is the standard against which things tend to be rendered valid or invalid, the central experience around which our institutions are built, and the lens through which we frame problems, propose solutions, and measure success. It is a state of affairs that is only possible because of the extent to which whites deployed policy to their advantage at the expense of everyone else. You personally may not have firebombed a black person’s home, but your positioning (if you are a white person or someone with a degree of privilege) is a direct result of the extent to which policies that benefited your community turned a blind eye to practices aimed at constraining the mobility of folks of color. It’s a truth that doesn’t necessarily require you to feel “guilty,” per se. But it does render you complicit if you are unwilling to examine your positioning or participate in the dismantling of the long-standing barriers that continue to deny others the validation, access, mobility, and power you enjoy.

As Butler noted in her remarks, she understood both strategically and intellectually the importance of not making people feel “guilty” in coalition-building. But she also argued that that approach centered whiteness. It put white feelings and white discomfort about privilege above the actual ongoing generational pain lived by those that had been tangibly harmed by discriminatory policies. Moreover, it invalidated the experience of the black community, her own experience included, and once again relegated them to the margins. Adhering to such an approach, she argued, would both uphold white privilege and continue to limit our ability to make real change in the way we plan for and govern our cities.

Picking up on Butler’s point, Jimenez spoke of the fact that this history is generally absent from our curricula, making these conversations all the more difficult and leaving marginalized communities that much more vulnerable by robbing them of voice. Engaging people where they were and ensuring dialogues were inclusive – however uncomfortable they might be – was essential to moving forward.

My own comments suggested the omission of the tremendous harm the enforcement of segregation had done to the overall well-being of communities had made it easier to push aside uncomfortable questions of privilege and responsibility. The pain resulting from what non-white communities, and particularly the black community, had endured had to be acknowledged and engaged, I said. Not just to give that pain its due, but also because there was great resilience and strength within the communities that had managed to survive and thrive in their own way, even as every avenue seemed to be closed off to them. There was much to be celebrated in that resilience, I contended, and much to be learned.

Uncomfortable conversations are about more than validation of communities’ experiences, however. They are essential to our ability to arrive at better solutions, as seen in an exchange about integration.

When asked about how to avoid displacement in the effort to integrate communities – a solution he advocates for – Rothstein said without hesitation that “every community should be gentrified.”

Astute listeners to the webinar will hear me squeak, “Oh dear god!” and Brown step in a moment later to ask Rothstein to clarify what he meant.

The response had been involuntary on my part – a visceral reaction, I explained, to the glossing over of the herculean effort that goes into making formerly red-lined communities “safe” and “hospitable” for better-off newcomers. Just as considerable societal muscle had to be expended to create and maintain spaces where whites felt comfortable during the period Rothstein explores, considerable effort is being expended now to make urban spaces “safe,” “walkable,” “vibrant,” “welcoming,” and free from “suspicious-looking” folks.

Today’s processes may be more privately driven, particularly by real estate developers who understand the power of coded language and of rebranding neighborhoods as “up-and-coming,” “edgy,” “quaint,” and “eclectic.” But cities continue to play a role, too, working to “reclaim streets for people” via “place-making” and “re-imagining” efforts that both ignore the extent to which black and brown folks were driven out of the public space and devalue the community those residents managed to forge in private spaces. Ultimately, the results are the same: the erasure of visual, cultural, and, eventually, physical traces of the people that don’t fit within white-centered visions of community. Policies aimed at integration must understand these dynamics so as not to feed into them.

To be fair, I had understood why Rothstein had said what he did. His clinical examination of discriminatory policies – while incredibly thorough – had largely been limited to the economic implications of segregation (wealth gaps, population distribution, etc.). There had been far less consideration of the social and cultural impacts of segregation. His solutions, therefore, were also grounded in economics and what he had deemed as falling within our constitutional obligation to rectify, and less in questions of how any social and cultural factors would intersect with his recommendations, affect their viability, challenge their premise, or invalidate them outright.

But that sort of depersonalized, de-contextualized approach to policy-making is one that Butler had pointed to early on in her remarks as a sign of privilege – the luxury of not having to consider more intricate forms of harm and how they might complicate the ability of those that had been harmed to move forward. There’s a more practical reason to consider harms, too. De-contextualized policies that are over-reliant on empirical data – including some of the ones Rothstein advocates on behalf of at the end of his book – can end up perpetuating the very inequities they were intended to remedy.

All told, it was not the conversation I and some of the other panelists expected to have going in, especially given that we viewed the book as having something very powerful to say about the role of white supremacy in the development of our cities. But it was a very honest and necessary conversation about how positioning and privilege can factor in to the way we conceptualize problems and the solutions we are likely to propose. It also underscores the urgency of Tamika’s call for inclusion – true inclusion – if we are ever going to truly get beyond our not-particularly-distant segregationist past.

“I’m beyond the diverse society. I don’t want just a diverse society. Just having diversity means that when we look around the room, we just have different faces and different abilities and different genders and different gender identities sitting around that table. I want those folks who are around that table to also be involved in the decision-making. I want them to have the power to guide where we go. Segregation has prevented us from ever getting to inclusion…I don’t see folks like me being the folks of power making decisions. When you don’t even have us at the table, but then also bring us to the table and don’t let us speak or say anything, in both situations we’re invisible. And I think segregation has allowed us to continue to make certain folks invisible.”

Many thanks to America Walks for hosting this discussion and giving us the space to problematize and dig into the parameters of privilege. Many thanks to Charles Brown for having the vision to see what this conversation could be and ably guiding us along that path. Many thanks to Richard Rothstein for writing such a tremendous book and being willing to tread uncomfortable ground with us. And many thanks to the panelists, Sonia Jimenez and Tamika Butler, who I am grateful to continue to learn from every day.

Please join Brown and America Walks for the next installment in the Walking Towards Justice Series, slated for some time in the new year.

*During the webinar I mention an article called “Equity 101: Bikes v. Bodies on Bikes.” Find that here.

  • Sometimes you hear people argue that affordable housing should be built where land is cheapest, but this likely means reinforcing patterns of segregation. It’s interesting now that legal segregation by race is illegal but the legacy endures.

    My two cents is it needs to be legal to build multifamily housing in more places. Apartments and townhomes are disproportionately the homes of people of color. Ban them, and it’s not functionally super different from a racial covenant, although exclusionary zoning gets to pose as a race-neutral policy.

  • D Man

    And yet the NIMBYs in LA who are the most vocal advocates of maintaining single-family neighborhoods are predominantly white-progressive Democrats. Really makes you wonder.

  • Thanks for this summary, Sahra. I had to cut out of the webinar before the “gentrify everywhere” bit, but I got a lot out of the unexpected parts of the conversation described here. It got sort of tense but I was impressed by the extent to which all the panelists (and Brown and Rothstein too) were able to keep both cool and firm and talk frankly about what I think are mostly common goals.

    At one point I took Rothstein to be making what he seemed to see as a strategic argument against using the term “white privilege,” which he seemed to equate to the casting of personal blame. I took him to be was saying, accurately IMO, that for political reasons if nothing else, antiracist little-d democrats need some white folks on the team … and sometimes that includes some semi-clueless and fragile white folks who get offended by ideas like complicit fault.

    In my interpretation, that led to the totally awesome and persuasive response from Butler that sure, “privilege” and its implications may freak out some white people who we might prefer to have the support of, but FAILING to talk about privilege, fault and responsibility DEFINITELY freaks out less privileged folks who we DEFINITELY need to have on the antiracism+democracy team.

    There are definitely other reasons to acknowledge white privilege. But Butler’s point about this worked *within Rothstein’s own argument* as I heard it: if our attempts to use democratic policymaking to help fix the evils of racism DON’T acknowledge privilege etc, that’s itself a strategic error. That alienates people who need to be in the coalition too. Really good point.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    I wonder who exactly are those whom the author refers to as those with a “degree of privilege.” I take privilege to here mean “power” — in the form of wealth or status or influence. I.e. the folks referred to by the author are those who have “a degree” of wealth or power. Is that correct? The domination of white settlers, (primarily) from Europe, from the beginning of the United States, is an undisputed historical fact. People of all sorts (and of various skin colors) have fought against this domination since it’s very beginning. We all standing on the shoulders of giants (of all races) who have fought for justice. We are still fighting. And we shall, I believe, one day prevail. And the more folks who are involved in the fight, the better.