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A Powerful, Disturbing History of Residential Segregation in America

In “The Color of Law,” Richard Rothstein argues that government at all levels and in all branches abetted residential segregation, and the effects endure.
Arthur S. Seigel/Library of Congress

One of the great strengths of Rothstein’s account is the sheer weight of evidence he marshals. A research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, he quite simply demolishes the notion that government played a minor role in creating the racial ghettos that plague our suburbs and inner cities. Going back to the late 19th century, he uncovers a policy of de jure segregation in virtually every presidential administration, including those we normally describe as liberal on domestic issues.

Indeed, some of the worst offenses occurred with Franklin Roosevelt in the White House. One of his New Deal centerpieces, the Public Works Administration, built 47 public housing projects, all rigidly segregated, 17 for blacks, the rest for whites. His vaunted Tennessee Valley Authority put white employees in a “model village” of 500 homes, while blacks endured “shoddy barracks” far from their jobs. When war came, the Roosevelt administration provided housing for white defense plant workers, but only temporary, poorly constructed dwellings for black workers. The few protesters included Eleanor Roosevelt, whose pleas for fairness fell on deaf ears. The president, no friend of civil rights, argued that ending the Great Depression and winning World War ll must take precedence over divisive social issues.

Among Rothstein’s more telling examples is Stuyvesant Town, a 9,000-apartment complex built on Manhattan’s East Side in the 1940s by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The process of construction began with the city condemning 18 square blocks of a racially integrated neighborhood and transferring the land to the company, which received tax relief as well. Met Life executives made it clear that Stuyvesant Town was for “white people only”...