How the Government Segregated America's Cities By Design


We have been led to believe that racial segregation in housing was de facto segregation: by accident, or the result of private prejudices. Yes, private prejudice clearly contributed to segregation, but by itself it could not have segregated the country without the intention of the federal government to segregate neighborhoods throughout the nation.

[T]he accurate history—the history that was once well known but we’ve all now forgotten—[is] that racially segregated patterns in every metropolitan area... were created by de jure segregation, racially explicit policy on the part of federal, state and local governments.
— Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America, is certainly one of the most powerful and influential books about cities to have been published in the past decade. Rothstein, a fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and the Haas Institute at the University of California (Berkeley), systematically explores the origins of racial segregation in U.S. cities, Northern and Southern alike, and the legal and extra-legal means used to create and enforce patterns that persist to this day.

A new 20-minute video by Rothstein and award-winning filmmaker Mark Lopez, entitled Segregated by Design, distills Rothstein’s message into a simple, yet unflinching, look at the most destructive legacy of our country’s very recent—not distant—past. Unlike the book, you can finish this on your lunch break. And you should. Even if you think you know this history already, Rothstein and Lopez connect the dots of local zoning and investment decisions, federal housing policy and highway building, the prejudices roiling American society, and perhaps most importantly, the present day: the ways in which segregation never really ended, but still defines our lives in ways as profound as who gets a fair shot at a good education and an upwardly-mobile life.

Less directly, Segregated by Design makes another point that we think is important for Strong Towns advocates to understand: decline is not normal. Most Americans alive today have never lived in a time when “the inner city” wasn’t a locus of poverty, physical blight and social disintegration. Yet many of us fail to grasp the extent to which public policy had its thumb on the scale from the start in creating those conditions.

We can have strong neighborhoods—absolutely, necessarily including poor and working-class ones—that incrementally renew and revitalize themselves, and lift up their inhabitants in a virtuous cycle. We have in the past, as with the so-called “slums” that Jane Jacobs famously walked and wrote admiringly about in the 1950s and 1960s. We can again. But we need to return to investing in poor neighborhoods instead of writing them off; obsessively and lovingly maintaining the world we’ve built instead of chasing shiny and new while the old falls apart; and entrusting and empowering all of our communities—of every race and social class—to play an active role in co-creating the places they have to inhabit every day.

Here’s Segregated by Design:

And here’s just one of many eye-opening excerpts from the video’s narration:

In the three decades during which it had administered this policy [redlining], however, the agency never provided or obtained evidence to support its claim that integration undermined property values. In fact, often racial integration caused property values to increase because African-Americans' housing supply was so restricted and they had so many fewer choices. If African-Americans had access to housing throughout metropolitan areas, supply and demand balances would have kept their rents and home prices at reasonable levels. Without access, landlords and sellers were free to take advantage of the greater demand relative to supply for African-American housing.

A 1946 National Magazine article described a Chicago building where the landlord had divided a 540 square foot storefront into six cubicles, each housing a family. He had similarly subdivided the second story. Total monthly rent was as great as that generated by a luxury apartment on Chicago's Gold Coast along Lake Michigan. Such exploitation was possible only because public policy denied African-Americans opportunities to participate in the city's white housing market.

As the federal government concentrated low income African-Americans in single neighborhoods, the homes became overcrowded, families had to subdivide their homes to make their mortgage payments and their property tax payments. Cities frequently withdrew public services from African-American neighborhoods. They collected garbage less frequently, they didn't provide water and sewer services. Polluting industry and toxic waste plants were placed in African-American communities in order to protect white neighborhoods from deterioration.

The result was that African-American neighborhoods frequently turned into slums. White home owners looked at these places and assumed the slum conditions were characteristics of African-Americans and not of government policy that forced this kind of overcrowding. White home owners then became resistant to African-Americans moving into their neighborhoods because they thought they would bring slum conditions with them. Of course the slums were not created by the people; they were created by the forced concentration, the overcrowding in these neighborhoods.

Want more? Watch Segregated by Design, and then go to the film’s website to learn more, including how you can support the filmmakers and get this message out.