Author says bold action needed to erase vestiges of state-sanctioned segregation
It is no secret that Lawrence is one of the whitest major cities in Kansas outside of the Johnson County suburbs.
For many years, much of the African-American population that did live in Lawrence outside of the University of Kansas campus was concentrated in East Lawrence. More recently, the black community has generally migrated to an area south of 23rd Street and east of Iowa, where rents have been generally cheaper than in the newer suburban neighborhoods in west Lawrence.
Some would argue that those patterns are the result of cultural and economic patterns, people choosing to live where they can afford to live, among people who share their own racial and cultural characteristics, a pattern often referred to as “de facto” segregation.
But in a new book, author Richard Rothstein, a former New York Times columnist, argues that there is nothing accidental about such patterns, in Lawrence or any other metropolitan area in the United States. Instead, he says, those patterns are the result of government-sanctioned “de jure” segregation that was enforced in the United States from the Civil War until the last quarter of the 20th century.
Rothstein, who is now a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and a fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP, is the author of, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” He will speak at the University of Kansas from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the KU Commons in Spooner Hall.
“The policy was so systematic and forceful that its effects endure to the present time,” Rothstein writes. “Without our government’s purposeful imposition of racial segregation, the other causes — private prejudice, white flight, real estate steering, bank redlining, income differences, and self-segregation — still would have existed but with far less opportunity for expression.”
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Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and a fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP, is the author of “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” He will speak at the University of Kansas from 7 to 9 p.m. today at the KU Commons in Spooner Hall, 1340 Jayhawk Blvd.
When people speak of government-enforced segregation, many people think of the Jim Crow laws that were pervasive in the Deep South into the 1960s. But in a recent telephone interview with the Journal-World, Rothstein argued that the laws and official policies were more pervasive than that and that they reached into nearly every community in America, including many in Kansas.
“Most people believe that we have de facto segregation, and I think the main point of the book is that there’s overwhelming evidence that the residential patterns of every metropolitan area, the segregated patterns, are the result of explicit, written, open government policy designed to create a segregated landscape,” he said.
Those laws and policies included such things as the placement of public housing developments in areas where blacks could be concentrated, racially restrictive zoning ordinances, lending patterns after World War II by the Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration, and federal transportation policy, which often directed construction of the new Interstate Highway System so that African-American communities were isolated and cut off from access to jobs and community services.
The effects of those practices, he argues, have trickled down for generations, sometimes in ways that are difficult for people to recognize now.
“For example, many African-American World War II veterans did not apply for government-guaranteed mortgages for suburban purchases because they knew that the Veterans Administration would reject them on account of their race, so applications were pointless,” Rothstein writes in the book. “Those veterans then did not gain wealth from home equity appreciation as did white veterans, and their descendants could then not inherit that wealth as did white veterans’ descendants.”
The consequences, he argues, can be seen today in places like Ferguson, Mo., which erupted in violence in 2014 following the police shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown.
“In Ferguson, for example, there’s no public transportation to any place where jobs exist,” Rothstein said in the interview. “If large numbers of young men were not living in those neighborhoods, their alienated and oppositional behavior would not develop, and police would not be patrolling that neighborhood as an occupying force if they were integrated into the broader population.
“Ferguson exists as a largely segregated, majority black community, because of government policies that shifted the black population in St. Louis from urban areas in the central city to the only two or three suburbs that would accept them in the beginning of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s when those neighborhoods were demolished in downtown St. Louis,” he said. “They built the iconic arch, Gateway to the West, on land that was an African-American segregated community. Highway interchanges were built to demolish more of the African-American neighborhood.”
Following World War II, civil rights activists attacked such policies through litigation, the most memorable of which was the landmark case Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which struck down segregation in public schools.
Today, however, Rothstein argues that litigation is not the best path. To eliminate the last vestiges of government-sanctioned segregation, he argues, the United States and its communities need to adopt equally aggressive policies to root out those vestiges.
“For example, many of the suburbs that were created as all-white suburbs, places like Prairie Village in Kansas City, suburbs like that that were created by the Federal Housing Administration as exclusively white suburbs, could be required to adopt policies that are explicitly designed to integrate their communities, to create housing for a fair share of the metropolitan area’s low-income population,” Rothstein said. “Repeal of exclusionary zoning ordinances in communities like that that prohibit the construction of townhouses or apartments, or even single-family homes on small lot sizes.”
But Rothstein concedes that communities are not likely to adopt such policies as long as people believe that racial segregation is the result of anything other than unconstitutional policies of the past. And without such a recognition, he says, such proposals, like the highly controversial “affirmative action” policies employed by many states and communities, will simply be labeled “reverse discrimination.”
“Yes, that’s what they will say,” Rothstein said. “And if you create a situation by unconstitutional policies of discrimination and segregation, you have to reverse them. That’s correct.
“As I say in the conclusion of the book, letting bygones be bygones is not a constitutional policy,” he said. “If we want to consider ourselves a constitutional democracy, we have to honor its obligation to remedy wrongs. If somebody wants to label remedies ‘reverse discrimination,’ so be it. But it’s a remedy. It’s not going to undo itself by accident any more than it was created by accident.”