Tag Archives: Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein’s Reparations Formula

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?

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De Jure versus De Facto Racism

Torino As we move forward on the Home Savers Campaign we are finding victims of predatory practices among all communities black, white, and brown, but more often than not since these are lower income communities, there seems to be a significant tilt towards residential segregation. Lawsuits in some cities and research reports are starting to argue that this is blatant discrimination.

Reading an excellent, recently published, book, The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, marshals the evidence that the impact on our communities was not accidental. He makes the case overwhelmingly that, contrary to recent Supreme Court decisions, this is not de facto racism, meaning just the fact that that people are prejudiced and don’t care to live near each other, but is de jure racism, a matter of longstanding public policy. Rothstein sums up the argument of his book early, writing,

The Color of Law demonstrates that racially explicit government policies to segregate our metropolitan areas are not vestiges, were neither subtle nor intangible, and were sufficiently controlling to construct the de jure segregation that is now with us in neighborhoods and hence in schools. The core argument of this book is 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.

Rothstein demonstrates how de jure segregation worked most effectively in general housing and housing finance policy, but also in the areas of school location by local communities and tax assessment policies that over assessed lower income areas and under-assessed largely while middle income areas. The situation around redlining and the failure of the Federal Housing Authority to guarantee mortgages in non-white areas until the mid-1970s is well known, but Rothstein moves the clock back as well, citing a 1910 Baltimore “ordinance prohibiting African-Americans from buying homes on blocks where whites were a majority and vice versa.” He notes that similar zoning restrictions were passed in Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami, Charleston, Dallas, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, and Richmond among other cities.

De jure segregation was not just a Southern and border state phenomena. Taking the segregation and siting of public housing projects as an example, he notes that a dozen states passed laws in the 1950s requiring a popular vote before approval of a location. That dirty dozen included California, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, hardly Southern strongholds. He tells the story of the committed segregationist city fathers of Boston, Massachusetts who built the Mission Hill housing project, where I hit the doors as a young organizer, and then built a Mission Hill Extension, so that the first was black, and the second was white. The fight to keep Detroit a haven for white homeowners propelled neighborhood segregationist into the mayor’s office there. Rothstein also effectively argues that suburbanization was a governmental supported and enabled segregation project.

And, of course he revives the argument that rent-to-own and installment land purchases in urban areas, forced by the inability to acquire home ownership by minorities in any other way, created ghettos and exploited African-Americans. As we know from hitting the doors in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Detroit, Akron, and so many other cities with ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign, that’s still the case.

Finishing the book or walking the streets of urban America, there’s never a doubt that governmental fiat blocked natural integration and mandated segregation. When will justice be served and a remedy be offered?

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