Segregation scholar Richard Rothstein fighting for new civil rights movement with best weapon he has: research

What’s the root cause of racial inequality in the United States in the last century? Scholar Richard Rothstein points to residential segregation as a key culprit.

After spending half a dozen years researching the topic, Rothstein began in 2015 to turn that work into his best-selling book, the Color of Law, thanks to the insistence of Ta-Nehisi Coates that he publish something written for a popular audience. In the work, Rothstein lays out in meticulous detail the government’s powerful, pervasive role in creating and enforcing residential segregation throughout the United States over the course of the last century. 

“Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulations but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States,” Rothstein writes. “We have created a caste system in this country, with African Americans kept exploited and geographically separate by racially explicit government policies.”

Now that he’s diagnosed the problem, Rothstein is focused on solutions, calling for a new civil rights movement, meeting with leaders around the country, and developing a new book examining what such a movement might look like. One step on the road to writing that book came to light on Aug. 14, with his publication of a New York Times article revealing how developers, lenders, and government agencies all collaborated in the segregation of one San Francisco Bay Area community and theorizing about what remedies families in the area might pursue. In one neighborhood, white families who bought homes that black homebuyers were excluded from in the 1940s have seen their home values rise from $100,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars to $1.5 million, while Black potential buyers were excluded from that wealth-building opportunity. 

“Residential segregation underlies almost all the racial inequality we have,” Rothstein told Shareable. “Blacks live in less healthy neighborhoods, they have more pollution, stress, shorter life expectancies, greater incidence of cardiovascular disease, and police abuse and of course the wealth gap.” 

His prescription for those pursuing remedies involves substantial research as well as a healthy dose of door-knocking to build community support. “Government policy is the last step, not the first step,” he said, “if we’re serious about making it uncomfortable to maintain present patterns of segregation.” 

Shareable caught up with Rothstein after his article was published to learn what he was thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement and how its push for police accountability might intersect with his work. An edited version of our conversation is below. 

Q: At Shareable’s housing summit last November, you gave a keynote address that called for a new civil rights movement to seek redress for the decades of federal policies that shut African American families out of housing and other wealth-building opportunities. Since the murder of George Floyd by police in May, we’ve seen a dramatic upsurge in racial justice activism and a public reckoning with systemic racism in the U.S. Does this look like the movement you imagined? What else is needed in your opinion?

A: Oh no, not at all, it’s not what I envisioned. Certainly, as I said in the article, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations lay a foundation, a context, where it makes a civil rights movement that addresses residential segregation more likely. But it itself is not addressing issues of residential segregation. 

It’s only addressing issues of police reform and vague calls for reparations. But what’s necessary is a disciplined and focused understanding of residential segregation and what needs to be done about it, and the example I give in that article is just one example. 

I’m not suggesting that’s the model for all civil rights activity in the area of segregation, but that’s an example of the kind of thing that once a disciplined group began to look into its own community and what’s possible, that could be done. It took me – and I’m a skilled researcher – it took me over a month to develop the information for that article, the history of how that community was created and so forth. So this is not something you can do just by sign waving.

Q: When you say a disciplined approach, you’re talking about deep and skilled research; it sounds like, into what happened in the past. Say more.

A: Well, the research is one step. It’s a first step only. Then it also has to be disciplined in how you take action based on the research. In this particular case — the article I wrote, based on San Mateo — that’s not actually the best example, because the difference between $100,000 and $1.5 million is in practical terms too big to bridge with a fund set up by organizations like that. But there are many places in the country, not necessarily in California, in the Bay Area, but there are many places in the country where the exact same thing I describe in that article results in a difference of $100,000 to say $400,000. That’s bridgeable. So it depends on the community. And there are many other issues.

A civil rights movement, it seems to me, needs to include four elements. First is the thing that most people think of when they think of housing segregation, and that is improving conditions in low-income segregated neighborhoods. Second is preventing massive displacement from gentrification. Third is opening up white communities to diverse residents, and fourth is preserving diversity where it exists, so that it’s not just transitional as a low-income community gentrifies and then turns into a high-income community.

I guess two and four are somewhat related, but they’re not exactly the same thing. 

Q: How much of this is something that can be addressed by government policy?

A: It all can be addressed by government policy. But in the meantime people need to take local action. Before the voting rights act was passed, John Lewis was registering voters in a locality, a local town in Alabama. Trying to register voters, getting them killed for trying to register. I’m not suggesting that people are going to get killed for engaging in this kind of activity of around residential segregation, but what I’m saying is that government policy is the last step, not the first step – if we’re serious about making it uncomfortable to maintain present patterns of segregation. 

Q: I want to move to a slightly different locale. This question is based on a friend of mine who just won election for mayor of Natchez, Mississippi. If you were in his shoes and especially knowing the history of that state, where I’m from, and you’re looking to do the right thing by the African American population in that city, what do you think your best options would be.

I don’t know enough about Natchez to know. This is what I keep on emphasizing to you. The tactics are going to vary depending on local conditions. 

I’ve traveled around country before the pandemic. I gave hundreds of lectures in different parts of the country. Every place I went, people tried to tell me their community was worse than anyplace else. More segregated, had more racist history than anyplace else. And they were always right. Every one of them was right, but in different ways. The opportunities to address this has to be unique to these circumstances. Is there a substantial middle class black population that was kept out of middle-class white areas? Is there a possibility of creating affordable housing there? 

Q: Right now, it seems obvious that we can’t look to the federal government to actually try and address these issues, so given that, we have to look at states and localities. Is there anything more general that you can say that you think would be useful for folks working on those levels?

A: I don’t agree with what you say that “right now.” I think if we had a Democratic administration it would be just as difficult. The Democratic party, a good part of its base is NIMBYs. I’m serious. In fact, the swing voters the Democratic party is trying to appeal to is suburban women. So what’s needed is a mass movement first that’s going to make the federal government move, and that wouldn’t exist in a Democratic administration either. 

Q: You say a mass movement and it sounds like you’re referring to something other than BLM.

A: Well, no, I’m talking about groups that are focused on issues of housing segregation, neighborhood segregation. Can Black Lives Matter movements, demonstrations evolve into that? Yes, they may. The article I wrote appeals to a Black Lives Matter group of demonstrators to think beyond police reform. If I’m hopeful at all that such a mass movement can emerge, it’s because of the Black Lives Matter movement, which involved an unprecedented number of whites. 

Q: Segregation issues are connected to the wealth gap. Is that something that you would talk about separately? I wonder if there are other ideas on how to rectify that huge disparity?

A: Yes. There’s been too much emphasis in the discussion about homeownership as a route to wealth creation. Homeownership is a route to wealth creation only if you’re smart enough or if the government is smart enough on your behalf to give you access to homes in neighborhoods that are about to appreciate faster than homes in other neighborhoods. 

Most African Americans who own homes haven’t gained wealth from them the same way that whites have gained wealth, because their neighborhoods haven’t appreciated in value the same way. So the idea that simply putting people into homes is going to close the wealth gap is very misleading. There are good reasons to put people in homes, but it’s not the only way to create wealth. One way to create wealth is to narrow income inequality so people can save. 

Q: What are some of the ways you suggest for doing that? 

A: A progressive tax system, a much, much higher minimum wage, a labor movement that is permitted to organize in a way that it’s not now permitted under federal law. 

Q: How do you connect the dots between the housing and land use policy that you talked about in your book and the policing and criminal justice system that the BLM movement has been focused on? Your article is obviously one piece of that. What are some other ways?

A: Segregation creates the conditions for much greater police abuse, mass incarceration than would otherwise exist. 

When you concentrate the most disadvantaged young men in single neighborhoods without access to jobs, without access to transportation to get to those jobs, without a variety of other opportunities, schools that are not dealing with social and economic disadvantages overwhelmingly — when you concentrate young men like that in single neighborhoods — the police become an occupying force. Much like they were in colonial India or colonial, the Congo or any other place.

Isabel Wilkerson uses the term caste. I think that’s appropriate. If young African-American men weren’t concentrated in those neighborhoods where they engage in confrontations with the police, where the police abuse goes mostly unnoticed except if somebody happens to have a cell phone. If African-Americans weren’t concentrated in those neighborhoods, there would be less abuse. I’m not saying there would be none, but it would not be as extreme as it is. 

Q: So by that argument, fighting segregation is a pathway to fighting police abuse, is what it sounds like you’re saying?

A: What I’m saying is that residential segregation underlies almost all the racial inequality we have. It’s not just police abuse, it’s the achievement gap in schools, it’s health disparities between blacks and whites. Blacks live in less healthy neighborhoods, they have more pollution, stress, shorter life expectancies, greater incidence of cardiovascular disease, and police abuse and of course the wealth gap, which I’ve written about. The wealth gap itself drives much of our ongoing inequality. Yeah, I think residential segregation underlies all – not exclusively — but it’s a major contributor to all the forms of racial inequality we have.

Q: In your book, you talk about police tolerance and promotion of cross burnings, arson, all these other things as systematic and nationwide, and done in the service of housing segregation, yet people still tend to view housing segregation as something that results from personal choice rather than government policy. What are some ways that we can help people better understand this history? 

A: Write books about it. [Laughs]

Q: And write articles? 

A: Articles, yes, go around the country giving talks about it. All I can do is my part of it. That’s my mission: to try and help people understand it, and I think I’ve been more successful in doing it than I ever expected. One of the things I talk about in the book is how the textbooks that are used in high schools everywhere misstate this history. So if the next generation doesn’t learn this any better than previous ones have, they’re going to be a in as poor a position to remedy it as the previous ones.

Q: Are you working on a history book?

A: No. I’m not. I’m working on a book about what we do about it, about how to create a new civil rights movement. The article that you saw is the first piece that I’ve published out of that research. 

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