Book Review: The Color of Law

The Color of Law: a forgotten history of how our government segregated America

By Richard Rothstein

A book review by Vince Bolduc


The South Burlington Library and the Affordable Housing Committee just concluded a two-part discussion of Richard Rothstein’s highly regarded The Color of Law. The well-attended sessions were facilitated by Jessica Hyman of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.


The book gives us a fresh look at the origins of racial segregation in America and takes a critical look at the common belief that residential segregation is primarily a result of the decisions of individuals to either a) racially discriminate as biased actors in the real estate market or b) self-select into racially homogeneous neighborhoods.


Rothstein employs historical and legal research to show that while some of the individual motives above were undoubtedly important, the more important cause was formal and explicit government policies that required racial residential segregation as a condition of the national housing agenda. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA), which by 1950 together insured half of all new mortgages nationwide, included a “whites-only” requirement. The book includes chilling details of Black families who sought to buy homes in the nation’s new suburban developments or who were terrorized by white neighbors once they moved in.


The VA also often demanded “protective covenants” in property deeds forbidding the sale of homes to non-whites. South Burlington’s Mayfair Park and the Birchwood subdivision both originally contained such covenants.


The formal rationale expressed in the Underwriting Manual of the FHA contains this: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy leads to instability and a reduction in values.” The Manual also cautions against “…the adverse influences...of the infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups.”


The author also provides many examples of how state, local and municipal regulations resulted in a national pattern of racial segregation, still with us in 2021. Some of the original local regulations were painful and bizarre such as local “Jim Crow” laws, redlining, blockbusting, and even the denial of sewer permits to exclude the construction of racially integrated housing developments.


Besides Rothstein’s imposing research, the most impressive part of the book was its consistent focus, less on individual maliciousness or personal bigotry than on the role of federal, state and local regulations deliberately designed to create and sustain a pattern of residential segregation that is still a problem today.


The books is well organized, reads very well, and is not as “policy wonky” as it may sound.


Rothstein does an excellent job illustrating why these historic sources of de jure discrimination still influence American society. Besides the influence on the overall quality and vitality of our communities, he points to the fact that for most Americans, housing has been the major source of wealth accumulation. Since Blacks have been systematically (and formally) denied the same source of equity growth as that of white families, their aggregate wealth today is roughly only 10% that of whites. The consequences of this gap are enormous and influence social factors including educational attainment, earnings, home and business ownership, health care, and many others too numerous to list here. Remedies to address such inequalities, he argues, are vital to the future of the country.


One of the benefits of such a popular book is the amount of supporting resources available to the reader. For anyone interested in an engaging 17 minute video effectively summarizing Rothstein’s work, follow this link.  Many other resources summarizing his book are widely available on the internet, including edited versions of his many lectures. Any of these are helpful for anyone who does not have the time to commit to this 300 page work.