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The Color of Law: A Book Review

September 15, 2020 by admin

The Color of Law: A Book Review

by Washington State Law Library

Washington Courts published the following online book review on December 11, 2018. The State Law Library is open to the public and welcomes the opportunity to assist in legal research at


Is racial segregation today the result of private choices or a lasting legacy of government-sponsored discriminatory policy? This is the question that Richard Rothstein sets out to answer in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright Publishing, 2017, 345p.). Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award and one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 Best Books of 2017, Rothstein’s Color makes his case for the latter.

“Half a century ago, the truth of de jure segregation was well known, but since then, we have suppressed our historical memory and soothed ourselves into believing that it all happened by accident or by misguided private prejudice. Popularized by Supreme Court majorities from the 1970s to the present, the de facto segregation myth has now been adopted by conventional, liberal and conservative alike,” Rothstein argues (pg. xii). He is not swayed by the continued distinction made between de jure segregation, that which is accomplished by legislation and governmental policy, and de facto segregation, racial imbalance due to personal decisions, in opinions such as Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. №1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007), holding that use of race in assigning students to schools to achieve racial diversity is not a compelling government interest.


Whether one agrees with Rothstein’s argument or not, The Color of Law is required reading for anyone who seeks to understand the history of segregation in the United States. Beginning with segregation in public housing that took off during the New Deal era, and working his way through racial zoning, unavailability of financing and mortgage guarantees to African Americans, private segregation through the use of judicially enforced restrictive covenants, income inequality, and local tactics such as urban renewal, Rothstein paints a picture of enduring structures of government designed to separate the races.


Other chapters address white flight, state sanctioned violence and discriminatory policies and inaction by federal regulators and the Internal Revenue Service. He describes how speculators and real estate agents took advantage of African Americans’ inability to obtain home mortgages. Blockbusting was one such scheme “… in which speculators bought properties in borderline black-white areas; rented or sold them to African American families at above-market prices; persuaded white families residing in these areas that their neighborhoods were turning into African American slums and that values would soon fall precipitously; and then purchased the panicked whites’ homes for less than their worth” (pg. 95).


Rothstein packs a lot of information into this book, but it’s not all law and policy. The history becomes personal when he tells us of a cross burning in front of Andrew and Charlotte Wade’s home when they moved into an all-white suburb in Louisville, Kentucky. Grand jury indictments followed, not for the perpetrators of the violence, but for the white couple who sold the house to the Wades, for conspiring to inflame racial conflict. There is also the story of generations of the Mereday family who migrated from South Carolina to Long Island, New York. They enjoyed prosperity as veterans and construction business owners, but were prevented from buying homes in the all-white Levittown subdivision that they helped build.


Rothstein provides some proposals for rectifying the legacy of de jure segregation. But he readily admits that America is not ready for them. His strongest argument is that as a country, we need to come to terms with how we got here. Rothstein gives us an in-depth look at that history. It will serve as a potent tool for future advocates and political players, as well as the general reader, in hopes that our historical memory be suppressed no more. (SC)


To listen to an interview with The Color of Law author Richard Rothstein on National Public Radio’s (NPR) Fresh Air, go to


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