The Forgotten History of How the Government Segregated America: Part 1

In part one, author and scholar Richard Rothstein says explicit government policy, not personal choice or redlining was the main force that segregated America

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Story Transcript

Jaisal Noor: This is The Real News Network, I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. A city not unique in its deep racial segregation, which has dramatic impacts on educational outcomes, crime, homicide, incarceration rates, even life expectancy. Residents of affluent white neighborhoods can expect to live some two decades longer than those in their disinvested, segregated counterparts. In fact, a 2015 White House study found that for every year of childhood spent in Baltimore actually reduces adult earnings by almost 1% per year for children from the city’s lowest income families.

This begs the question, “How did we get here?” It’s taught in schools that residential segregation is a byproduct of factors like personal choice, bank [inaudible 00:00:46] and white flight. But in an explosive new book, author Richard Rothstein unearths the US governments role in intentionally segregating series over the last century. He’s not joining us for an extended conversation about The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. He’s a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of The NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Thank you so much for joining us.

I just mentioned some of the appalling disparities you see in cities like Baltimore today, which also has the highest record homicide rate in its history. Investigative journalist Jane Miller notes that since 1998, Baltimore spent 6.8 billion dollars on policing, but the pattern of violence is unchanged. I want to talk to you about how we got to this point. Can you start us off in early 20th century and the role the government played? We can start on a federal level, in creating segregation even where it didn’t exist.

Richard: Yes, thank you very much. We have a conventional belief across the political spectrum, as you said, that the reason we have segregated neighborhoods in every metropolitan area in the country is because of personal choice or private discrimination or perhaps private companies like real estate companies steering people. The Supreme Court has called that defacto segregation, and says that if we have defacto segregation, there’s no constitutionally permissible remedy for it. But in fact, in Baltimore and everywhere else in the country, the segregated patterns that we have in metropolitan areas are government sponsored, government created.

Not the unintended consequence of benign government actions, but the explicit, racially explicit policies of government, particularly the Federal Government. They were unconstitutional, they’ve never been remedied and I think it’s the point of my book, the reason they’ve never been remedied is because we have this myth that they didn’t happen on purpose. If they happened by a million private choices and personal actions, it’s hard to think those millions of private choices and personal actions didn’t undo it.

But if it was by explicit government policy, then it’s much easier to think of explicit government policies that can undo it. For example, in Baltimore in 1910, going back to the beginning of the 20th century the city of Baltimore actually created an ordinance and specified that African Americans couldn’t live or move on to blocks where whites were a majority and vice versa. Whites couldn’t move on to a block where blacks were a majority.

If you think about it, you’ll realize that the only reason that such an ordinance could have been justified was because we had many integrated neighborhoods in Baltimore, and in fact there were many integrated neighborhoods in Baltimore and in cities around the country, and the reason is that in those days, working class families, lower middle class families, even middle class families, they didn’t have automobiles. If they needed to go to work, they needed to be able to walk to work or take very short transit rides.

So they lived in the same neighborhoods. African Americans, Polish immigrants, Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, Jewish immigrants all lived in the same neighborhoods where they could walk to work and be close to one another. Baltimore passed this ordinance but had a very difficult time enforcing it because it created all kinds of absurdities given how integrated Baltimore was at the time. There was one case where a white home owner on a block that was a majority African American wrecked his home in order to have it remodeled, and he was prohibited from moving back because it was a majority black block.

There was an African American minister who had a church on a block where most of the residences were white and he was afraid that when he retired he couldn’t get a new minister to occupy the parsonage because it was a majority white block. There were all kinds of absurdities. Eventually Baltimore had to modify its ordinance to say that it only applied to 100% black blocks or 100% white blocks, in order words an African American couldn’t move on to a block that was all white.

But that’s the kind of government action that began very early in the 20th century. In 1917 the Supreme Court [inaudible 00:05:29] involving Louisville, Kentucky said that those kinds of ordinances were unconstitutional. And it didn’t say it because the Supreme Court was committed to racial immigration, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional because such an ordinance violated the property rights of a white property owner to sell to whomever he pleased. But, in any event, it was unconstitutional. The Federal Government then began a program to encourage zoning across the country that was purportedly economically based, although the primary purpose of it was racial segregation.

In the 1920s Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover set up a committee on zoning, a direct consequence of the Supreme Court decision that prohibited Baltimore’s ordinance and Louisville’s ordinance and other city’s. And that committee on zoning tried to persuade every jurisdiction in the country to adopt the zoning ordinance that would prohibit apartment buildings or single family homes on small lots from being built in neighborhoods which had larger, single family homes. It was an economic segregation measure.

Well The New Deal came alone, and The New Deal, beginning in 1933, started to put money behind this attempt to segregate and it put money behind explicitly racial segregation. It did it in two ways: one way was it created public housing for the first time. We never had public housing before The Depression. In 1933 The New Deal began to build public housing, and in many cases it built public housing on a segregated basis in cities that had never known segregation before, that were integrated like Baltimore was in the beginning of the 20th century.

Langston Hughes, the great African American poet and playwright, in his autobiography describes how he grew up in an integrated Cleveland neighborhood in Central City, Cleveland. He says his best friend was Polish, he dated a Jewish girl in high school. This was an integrated neighborhood, much like Baltimore’s neighborhoods were earlier in the 20th century. The New Deal, The Public Works Administration came into that neighborhood, demolished the housing that was there and built segregated public housing. One separate project for African Americans, a separate project for whites, and this was done all over the country. In some places it reinforced segregation that already existed, in other places it created segregation, as in the example I gave in this Cleveland neighborhood where it hadn’t before been known.

And this continued for the next several decades in World War II, there were many, many neighborhoods where workers flocked to work in defense plants from rural areas, both African American and whites, they overwhelmed the infrastructures of the cities where defense plants were created and there was no housing for them. The government built housing for war workers in World War II, always on a segregated basis, the north, the mid west, the west, and the south as well, housing black workers separately from white workers, usually the black workers were housed in much less adequate housing, the quality of the construction was poorer, white workers were housed in more adequate housing.

Again, in some cases the segregation was created by the government in World War II in cities where there had never been an African American population before. It was not perpetuating existing patterns of segregation, it was creating them anew. In my book The Color of Law, I describe a neighborhood, a community in California in the San Francisco Bay Area, thought to be one of the more liberal areas of the country, Richmond, California. There were virtually no African Americans living in Richmond before World War II, but it had a deep water port and so ship building was a major industry during the war in Richmond, California.

100,000 workers came to work in the shipyards of Richmond, a town that had a population of less than 20,000 before the war. These workers had to be housed and the government built housing for African American workers along the railroad tracks, near the shipyards, in the industrial area and for whites further inland in white residential areas, creating a segregated pattern that had never been known before.