Rothstein in Richmond: Raising Consciousness About The Color of Law

by on January 23, 2018

Richard Rothstein, now a resident of Berkeley, was a Students for a Democratic Society leader in the 1960s, later became an Urban League staffer and labor organizer, and then a well-known writer about educational policy issues and columnist for the New York Times. More recently his research for the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in Washington, DC, and the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has focused on the discriminatory impact of past federal housing programs.

Rothstein’s new book The Color of Law (W.W. Norton, 2017) is subtitled A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. In it, he documents how racial segregation in housing did long-term damage to African-American family wealth, income, job opportunities, and access to education. Richmond, CA. emerges as a key case study of blacks being left behind in every area. So not surprisingly, Rothstein drew a large and attentive multi-racial audience, when discussing his findings in our city council chambers last Saturday afternoon

In a talk sponsored by the Richmond public library and history museum, the author recalled how Ford Motor Co. closed its local car factory in 1955, shifting production to Milpitas, a then-rural suburb of San Jose.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) negotiated an agreement with Ford permitting all 1,400 Richmond plant workers, black or white, to transfer with their seniority rights intact. With the assistance of federal home mortgage guarantees, low-interest loans, and, for veterans, no down payment, many white UAW members were able to take advantage of this deal, after buying into suburban subdivisions then blossoming in the Bay Area. Louisiana born Frank Stevenson and 250 of his Richmond co-workers faced far greater obstacles to following their work south. A newly-enacted Milpitas zoning ordinance banned apartment construction and allowed only single-family homes to be built. As Rothstein reports in his book, the latter “were off limits to blacks—though their incomes and economic circumstances were like of those of whites on the assembly line.”

Housing bias in the suburbs, like race-based segregation of renters and home-owners in post-war Richmond, was no accident. In fact, as Rothstein writes, one of “the federal government’s specifications for mortgages insured in Milpitas was an openly stated prohibition on sales to African Americans.”  Throughout California, private developers dependent on federal loan insurance would not sell to non-whites–and no state-licensed real estate agent would even show them houses–anywhere that a “mixed-neighborhood” would result.

Even housing co-ops, committed to racial integration, were denied bank loans for new construction and mortgage assistance because “the Federal Housing Administration would not insure locals to a cooperative that included African-American members.” By the time Ford left Richmond, many of its African-American workers, had become so discouraged about the lack of housing opportunities near the company’s new facility that “they formed carpools to share the hundred-mile daily round trip from Richmond,” a commute that Frank Stevenson made for twenty years.

It was only when Stevenson was close to retirement, in 1975, that he was finally able to buy his first home, moving from North Richmond to a formerly whites-only section of the south Richmond housing market. In the meantime, white co-workers—with job skills, experience, and union wages no different than his–had benefited, far longer, from the much greater appreciation in the value of their homes. The multi-generational impact of this economic disparity, multiplied hundreds of thousands times, was not mitigated by passage of national “fair housing” legislation in the late 1960s or court decisions eventually banning restrictive covenants.

The Richmond public schools attended by Stevenson’s three daughters were also “segregated primarily because federal and local housing policies had segregated the city itself.” Tracing the subsequent non-college careers, modest jobs and incomes of second and third generation Stevenson family members, Rothstein asks:

“What might have become of these Stevenson grandchildren if their parents had grown up and attended school in an integrated Milpitas?  How much further on the socioeconomic ladder would they have been able to climb….How different might their lives    have been were it not for the federal government’s unconstitutional determination to segregate their grandparents and their parents as well? What do we, the American community, owe this family, in this and future generations, for their loss of opportunity? How might we fulfill this obligation?”

The accumulated weight of evidence in Color of Law makes for painful reading, as several audience members confessed during a Q&A session with Rothstein after his talk. His older questioners included speakers who personally experienced block-busting tactics by realtors and resulting white flight, the contraction of the black business community in inner cities, and the demographic shift in U.S. public housing from “working class families that were not poor” to its present-day population of much lower-income, far more disadvantaged, and almost entirely non-white residents. The bottom line today, as Rothstein noted, is an enormous disparity in wealth and income, between blacks and whites, largely attributable to the factor of home-ownership (and where, when or whether it existed at all).

One audience member, an African-American women, suggested–like the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates—that financial “reparations” were the only just solution; a later white speaker dismissed this idea as too divisive and impractical. In his book and Richmond appearance, Rothstein emphasized the need for “make whole remedies” that “also include policies that do not involve payments.” What’s most important at the moment, he argues, is arousing in Americans “an understanding of how we created a system of unconstitutional, state-sponsored segregation.” Without a “sense of outrage about that, neither remedies nor reparations will be on the public agenda,” he predicts.

Rothstein and his colleagues at EPI had their own high hope for what a Hillary Clinton administration might have accomplished in the area of housing. Those aspirations crashed and burned on November 8, 2016. And, now one year into the Trump era, even existing federal tax incentives and subsidies for low- and moderate-income housing, built by private developers, have been sharply curtailed. The result, proclaims a recent New York Times headline, is that “affordable rents may take a hit.” Republican-crafted tax code changes “will reduce the growth of subsidized affordable housing by 235,000 units over the next decade, compounding an existing shortage.” Amid this looming “undersupply” of affordable housing,  developers are instead pursuing tenants who can afford “the pricey glass and steel buildings that have sprouted in downtowns across the country.”

In Richmond, Rothstein reminded his audience that “there won’t be any improvement in government action [on housing] until you create the necessary political base,” something that would have been true even under Clinton, he acknowledged. “Residential segregation is the underlying cause of most of the country’s social and economic problems,” he insisted. But, without developing “a wider understanding of history” and “a new consensus on remedial policies,” the latter will remain “politically unfeasible,” regardless of who controls the White House and Congress.

(Steve Early is a Richmond resident and the author, most recently, of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, now available in paperback from  Beacon Pre

Steve Early

Steve Early is a longtime labor journalist and author of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013), The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket Books, 2011) and Embedded With Organized Labor (MRP, 2009)

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