America’s Amnesia: The Ongoing Effects of Segregation

. October 10, 2018.

Bestselling author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2017), Dr. Richard Rothstein, was the keynote speaker for the 2018 Ohio Fair Housing Summit held in downtown Toledo on September 20, to educate the public about the purposefully racist policies beginning in the early 20th century that have led to today’s segregated neighborhoods.

A history lesson

Unlike many forms of segregation in our nation’s history that have been obvious—whites-only drinking fountains and segregated buses, for example—segregated neighborhoods are often viewed by the public as being incidental, or de facto, segregation. That, Rothstein explains in this book, is “a forgotten history.”

“I think we’ve developed a rationalization to excuse ourselves from doing something that otherwise we would know we’d have to do,” Rothstein said, “and that is to undo the unconstitutional policies that created these racial boundaries.”

The United States’ history of segregating neighborhoods is as old as its involvement in housing. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration inherited many of the racial policies established two decades before by his segregationist predecessor (Woodrow Wilson) and, with the expansion of government through the New Deal, allowed unconstitutional policies to be implemented.

Rothstein said that our government’s involvement in segregation used to be well-known, but “scholars stopped writing about this in the mid-1990s.” When he read a 2007 Supreme Court decision that prohibited school districts from desegregating, he
began the extensive research that led to his book.

Moving forward

“I was stunned,” Rothstein said. “I had known these individual instances, but I also had called it de facto segregation just like everybody else did. After this research, I realized
this was systematic policy on all levels of government designed to segregate the country.”

The systematic policies he refers to as examples include highways being built to create barriers between white and black communities, or even to destroy black communities that were thought to be too close to white business districts. Other instances include redlining (banks denying home loans in neighborhoods of color) and not allowing African Americans to move in to white neighborhoods. The wealth gap that has been created between white and black Americans is astounding: while African Americans earn 60% of the aggregate income made by white Americans, they have only 10% of their wealth, Rothstein explained.

“You would think that people with similar incomes would have similar savings,” Rothstein said. “It is a direct result of unconstitutional federal housing policies in the mid-20th century. Wealth is a much more important determinant of economic security than income.”

Having home equity and savings gets people through the tough times. They can pass that wealth on to their children. It enables them to weather life’s storms.

Rothstein also points to discriminatory practices by landlords today that are still legal in most communities, like denying housing to Section 8 voucher holders. In Toledo those denials take place and the Fair Housing Center is trying to address it.

“The challenge in all of these (issues) is a more public understanding of the origins of this, so that people don’t think segregation is the fault of African Americans,” Rothstein said, adding that segregated neighborhoods didn’t happen by accident, and they won’t become desegregated without enacting policies to fix the problem.