A new book suggests that racial segregation in housing can be undone if Americans come together across racial lines to pressure lawmakers and communities to address the segregation created by federal, state and local officials that has led to vast inequality between white and Black Americans.
Richard Rothstein and Leah Rothstein, a father-daughter pair, are the authors of “Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law.” Richard Rothstein is author of The New York Times bestseller and precursor to his latest book “The Color of Law” on the history of housing segregation in America. Leah Rothstein has decades of experience in housing policy as a consultant to affordable housing developers and governments. Both live in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The two told the Tribune that they came together to write “Just Action” to answer a question that many readers of “The Color of Law,” including Leah, were left with: What do we do now?
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Q. For those who haven’t read “The Color of Law,” do you mind briefly summing up its main point?
Richard Rothstein: The main point of “The Color of Law” is that the reason we’re an apartheid society is because of racially explicit government action at the federal, state and local levels. … Every (policy) was unconstitutional.
Q. What are some of the consequences that come with housing segregation?
Leah Rothstein: Segregation of our communities underlies many of our most serious social problems. … Those who grew up in segregated African American communities, likely low-income communities, have worse health outcomes than those in white communities, even poor white communities. There’s income disparities from growing up in what are called “lower opportunity neighborhoods” where there’s less access to jobs and … to banks. And then educational disparities. … (Students have a) lack of access to healthy foods … parents are working longer hours … (students) likely have more contact with police; and there’s more violence and crime and higher levels of stress.
RR: Those white suburbs that were created on a racial basis by the federal government appreciated in value over the next couple of generations. In the post-World War II period, these suburban homes cost in today’s money a little bit more than $100,000 a piece. Any returning war veteran, Black or white, could have afforded those homes. Blacks were prohibited by explicit federal policy from buying them. … The homes that sold for $100,000 a piece now sell for, depending on the part of the country, $200,000, $300,000, $400,000, $500,000, a million dollars or more. The government-sponsored segregation is responsible for the relative impoverishment of African Americans in concentrated Black neighborhoods.
Q. You both talk about housing segregation mostly in terms of white and Black. I know you talk about why you made this choice in your book and acknowledge that white and Black people are not the only racial groups that live segregated. Do you mind explaining that decision?
RR: My focus, particularly, is on the unconstitutionality of the segregation that we have and the obligation it imposes on us as Americans to do something about it. The policies that I am describing were directed at African Americans. There are other groups that are disadvantaged in various ways, not because of unconstitutional policies, mostly because of economic policy. We have a very unequal society; we have a great need for economic reform. But the other groups aren’t disadvantaged because of explicit racial policies on the part of the federal government. Now, that’s a little bit of an oversimplification. Certainly, there were explicit racial policies on the West Coast against the Chinese and Japanese, (as well as) in places like Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California against Mexican Americans. But at the time these policies were implemented, these groups weren’t distributed throughout the country. They were in these pockets in the Western United States.
Q. A lot of people say that Chicago is the most segregated city in America or is considered one of the most segregated cities in America. What do you think of this statement?
RR: I don’t know if Chicago is the most segregated city in America. I can’t begin to tell you the number of places I go to who claim to be more segregated than anybody else in one way or another. … Chicago may be the most segregated city, or at least one of the more segregated cities, but it’s more segregated only by a tiny bit. The big story is that every metropolitan area is segregated and segregated in very similar ways.
Q. Can you explain the difference between “place-based” and “mobility” strategies for desegregation?
LR: There are two main categories. One is place-based, which is concerned with increasing resources in lower-income, segregated African American communities where the concentration of poverty is the direct result of government-sponsored segregation. A subcategory in the place-based (category) are anti-displacement strategies. … As we increase resources in those communities, we also need to address the displacement that can occur when that happens: rent regulations, just cause eviction ordinances, inclusionary zoning policies to ensure that affordable housing is produced when market rate housing is built in those areas.
The other main category is mobility strategies, and those are concerned with opening up exclusive, primarily white communities to diverse residents. Zoning reform is a big piece of that because those communities are often kept exclusive and all white by ensuring that the only housing that can be built there are single-family homes on large lots that are then kept expensive so anyone without a lot of wealth built up — which African American families are less likely to have — are kept out of those communities. To (address this), we need to allow a diversity of housing types and provide subsidies and down payment assistance and other remedies to address the disparities that exist so African Americans can move into those communities. And then a subset of that category (includes) strategies that protect the integration of those communities as they start to diversify to ensure that they don’t just resegregate and all the whites leave.
Q. You mention in the book that Oak Park is an example of a community that intentionally desegregated and maintained its integration. Can you talk about this?
LR: In the mid-20th century, Oak Park was all white. People who lived there saw nearby towns where African Americans started moving in, and then they completely flipped to be all Black and all the whites left. And people in Oak Park didn’t want to do that. … They decided to intentionally diversify and maintain that diversity without all the whites leaving. … They organized the residents there to recruit African Americans to live in Oak Park and to educate the whites about living in a diverse community and being welcoming neighbors; they created social opportunities for people to get to know each other personally and socially to create a culture of a shared value of diversity and of integration. They also passed some local policies to assist with this, and one was banning for sale signs, which is something Realtors used to instigate white flight by putting up a bunch of for sale signs (to make it) look like … everybody was leaving.
They also did other innovative things around diversifying rental units in Oak Park. … They created the Oak Park Housing Center, which refers renters to vacant units based on what the Housing Center knows about that building in that small area like the block’s racial makeup. It’ll refer white renters seeking units to areas that are more African American, and African American tenants looking for a unit to areas that are more white. … It helps to ensure the integration of the rental housing stock. The housing center is still very active. This shared culture and values around being an integrated, welcoming, diverse community still exists. Now, it’s a more expensive place to live, so their efforts around maintaining diversity have to focus on affordability. … But it’s an example of a community that took intentional action to create a desegregated community and it worked.
RR: Today, still 50 years after these programs began, the racial composition of Oak Park almost precisely mirrors that of the Chicago metropolitan area.
Q. How could the rest of the Chicago area lead the way to desegregation in America?
RR: We don’t think that without a new, biracial activist movement that it is possible to accomplish any of the things that we talk about. We’re not focused on what the city of Chicago can do through the City Council; we’re focused on what local communities can do … to press for this kind of change, to organize in the way that the Civil Rights Movement organized with direct action in the 1960s to accomplish racial justice. We’re not addressing this book to policymakers; we’re addressing this book to citizens, residents of local communities, the 20 million people who participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 and then didn’t know what to do about it. Our book is trying to show them what they can do about it if they organize with their neighbors in communities to take both the political and direct action that’s necessary to force policymakers to make these changes and to create the local political environment where it’s possible for them to do so.
Q. In the book, you discuss how Black homeowners receive higher assessments of their properties compared to white homeowners, which lead to higher property taxes. You also mention that Black homeowners receive lower appraisals of their homes compared to white homeowners, which lead to diminished returns on home sales. When you spoke with Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, you wrote that he didn’t give you any solutions for how to right these wrongs for Black homeowners. Can you tell me about your recommendations?
RR: This is typical of most institutions. They’re all in favor of trying to do things better in the future, but fail to recognize their obligation to remedy the past. Assessor Kaegi acknowledges that the property tax system is discriminatory. … The African American homeowners who have been overtaxed as a result of this are due refunds … from school districts, fire departments, libraries, all of the agencies that have collected excess taxes from homeowners in Black neighborhoods. … The only way they will call for those refunds is with a popular, biracial movement that becomes aware of this overly excessively discriminatory system.
Q. If there’s one thing that you want readers to take away from the book, what would that be?
RR: If you take your responsibilities as Americans seriously, you have to understand that there’s an obligation under our constitution to remedy violations of that constitution. … We hope that this book will, at a minimum, take away the excuse that we don’t know what to do.
LR: There’s a lot we can do locally in our own communities that will make a real difference in people’s lives and then in the makeup of our own neighborhoods … that will actually benefit everybody. … We just have to get started somewhere.