New Orleans Richard Rothstein, a distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. wrote a watershed volume several years ago, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. The title goes to the heart of his well-documented, thoroughly researched evisceration of local, state, and federal policies that fomented and enforced segregation targeted at non-white populations and assuring white supremacy and diminished wealth for minority families that endures to this day.
One of the many interesting angles in the book was his documentation of these practices, so often associated with the South and large, urban cities, in the paradise by the Pacific, California. He was back at it in an op-ed in the New York Times using San Mateo and its upper middle-class Hillsdale neighborhood as a case in point. He catches the reader off guard by starting with the story of a young, white protestor who jointed the protests there in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rage over the killing of George Floyd. Sophia Heath and her recruits initiated a small civil rights movement in her segregated city and neighborhood.
While forefronting the protests, Rothstein backgrounds the activity of corporations and governments that created the segregation. He looks at the 1941 deed on Heath’s family home that required that “No persons other than members of the Caucasian or White race shall be permitted to occupy any portion of said property, other than as domestics in the employ of the occupants of the premises.” The racial covenant was required and signed by officers of the American Trust Company. Her house and many others in the neighborhood were developed by David D. Bohannon, who was also a bigwig in the National Association of Home Builders, and a principal in suits to block integrated neighborhoods. The houses were marketed by a real estate firm, Fox & Carskadon, that advertised the restrictive covenants as “permanent” to recruit like-minded buyers. Tragically, this is an oft-told story.
Rothstein turns the tables though to make his argument for their responsibility to pay reparations. The bank is now owned by Wells Fargo. The realtor is now owned by Coldwell Banker. Bohannon is still in business as a developer of properties including high-end malls in the area. The houses that first sold for $5000 now move for $1.5 million. No surprise, he wants them to pay.
His real argument though is not about San Mateo or even these three companies and the protests being organized by Sophia Heath. He is begging for activists and organizers to mount place-based campaigns all over the country. He is making the case that to do so requires the kind of exacting research he did in his book and in looking at this case study in San Mateo in order to root out the facts, identify the targets, and ascribe specific, undeniable accountability. Once the research is done, he wants people to then do the work and steel themselves for the fight with training, planning, and developing organizing skills. As he concludes,
“Cities and towns in metropolitan areas across the country have a history analogous to San Mateo’s. Uncovering it is hard work. Undoing it will be even harder. Winning the civil rights victories of the past required unusual dedication and persistence – extraordinary, really – and it will take more of the same to make Black lives matter in every neighborhood.”
Sounds right to me. Who can disagree? Who wants to join us in doing the work?