1 Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2017), xiv. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Richard Rothstein. (New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2017)


In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein uncovered troubling insight into the history of racial discrimination in America. His study investigated the impact of residential segregation and the role that state entities played in creating and maintaining the nation’s racial status quo. Rothstein argued that “African Americans were unconstitutionally denied the means and the right to integration in middle-class neighborhoods, and because this denial was state-sponsored, the nation is obligated to remedy it.”1 Rothstein set out to debunk the myth that residential segregation was de facto in nature and, therefore, solely created by private choice and private institutions. He asserted that overt racial policies instituted by government agencies imposed de jure segregation upon African American neighborhoods. Rothstein also detailed the deliberate nature of these racially discriminating policies and how they violate the American Constitution. In a bold argument with reparations at its heart, Rothstein argued that the federal government must take responsibility for the economic and social disparity between white and black Americans.

Rothstein incorporated several academic disciplines into his study. He wove economic, political, and social history into a compelling narrative of race in America. Rothstein analyzed American history from Reconstruction through the present, but primarily emphasized the racialized New Deal policies that originated during the Great Depression and in the postwar years. His topical study contained insights into many issues familiar to urban history, including the birth of public housing, racial zoning, restrictive covenants, white flight, and violence as a deterrent to desegregation. He also looked at more inherently economic aspects of residential segregation, including analysis of income suppression, lack of generational wealth, and the disproportionate taxation of African Americans. Rothstein concluded his study by providing remedies designed to mitigate government directed segregation. He used a wide range of sources in his research, including numerous court case rulings, town ordinances, restrictive covenants, legislation, and government regulations. 

The Color of Law differs from other studies of urban history because it is polemical and activist at its core. Unlike historical works like Thomas Sugrue’s The Origin of the Urban Crisis or Robert Self’s American Babylon, Rothstein moved beyond the explanation and causes of residential segregation and called for justice in the face of deliberate inequality. He also used a broad brush to paint the landscape of residential segregation. Rothstein decided against a case study methodology but instead incorporated a topical assessment that enabled him to pursue a more comprehensive national analysis that moved beyond the local intricacies of other studies.2

Rothstein began with a review of public housing and the creation of de jure segregation that occurred during the New Deal era. He drew attention to the integrated community in Cleveland, where the great African American poet, Langston Hughes, spent his childhood. During the Great Depression, Cleveland experienced a soaring demand for public housing. The Public Works Administration built two segregated projects in Langston’s neighborhood, one white and one black. These two government funded projects effectively disbanded an integrated community and propped up segregated ones in its place. Rothstein accurately noted that these projects “were used to create a more rigid segregation than had previously existed.”3 This direct de jure segregation is an early example of the federal government’s role in creating segregation in places where it did not exist previously. As Rothstein demonstrates, the implementation of New Deal policies like redlining and the creation of mortgage insurance for white homebuyers, allowed more and more whites to leave the projects for the suburbs while forcing their black neighbors to stay behind.

Thomas Sugrue spoke of the interconnectedness between race and class, but Rothstein argued that all too frequently, racially neutral economic policies cloaked the overt racism of communities and government entities. Rothstein observed: “To prevent lower-income African Americans from living in neighborhoods where middle-class whites resided, local and federal officials began in the 1910s to promote zoning ordinances to reserve middle-class neighborhoods for single-family homes that lower-income families of all races could not afford.”4 He argued that the exclusionary zoning statues that prevented multiple-family dwellings or small lot sizes represented, in fact, de jure attempts at maintaining racial segregation. Despite the lack of explicit racial language in these statutes, zoning limitations in middle-class neighborhoods kept those communities white. Rothstein showed that the use of race-neutral language in zoning practices and restrictive covenants demonstrated the adaptability of racism and how racism manifested itself in the post-civil rights era.5

Rothstein’s background in economic policy allowed him to analyze the lingering financial impact of residential segregation. He pointed to two economic realities that stemmed from residential segregation: the suppression of African Americans’ incomes and the inability of African Americans to gain access to generational wealth. Rothstein wrote, “An account of de jure residential segregation has to include not only how public policy geographically separated African Americans from whites but also how federal and state labor market policies, with undisguised racial intent, depressed African American wages.”6 The foundations of this financial inequality occurred during Reconstruction as the sharecropping system left countless African Americans in debt. It continued through New Deal economic policies that denied laborers in the agricultural and domestic fields, industries dominated by African American workers, access to Social Security, minimum wage protections, and labor unions.7 

Rothstein also pointed to a dual labor market, one for whites and one for blacks, that emerged after World War II. He criticized the role of the G.I. Bill in these two markets. He stated that that the bill “not only denied African Americans the mortgage subsidies to which they were entitled but frequently restricted education and training to lower-level jobs for African Americans who were qualified to acquire greater skills.”8 The deliberate racial disparity found within the G.I. Bill demonstrated another clear example of the unconstitutionality and pervasiveness of de jure discrimination in American society.

The Color of Law challenged the myth of de facto residential segregation. Rothstein asserted that the de jure nature of segregation in the United States demands a constitutional response. He praised the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which eliminated overt racial discrimination in housing policy, but also criticized lawmakers for not retroactively making amends for the generational damage caused by federal policy enacted over the preceding decades. Rothstein’s book is an essential study for those interested in American race relations, segregation, and the economics of race. 


Jonathan Bennett
Western Carolina University

1 Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2017), xiv.
2 See Sugrue, Self, My Blue Heaven by Becky Nicolaides, and White Flight by Kevin Kruse for examples of case study accounts of urban history.
3 Rothstein, The Color of Law, 24.
4 Rothstein, The Color of Law, 48.
5 Ibid., 188.
6 Rothstein, The Color of Law, 154. 7 Ibid., 157.
8 Ibid., 167.