8 Mile Wall
Every year, my students are surprised when I tell them that a half-mile wall (six feet tall and one foot wide) was constructed to segregate Black people from a White Neighborhood in Detroit.
When was this wall built? 1700s? 1800s? The surprise is palpable when I reveal the truth: 1941.
Damningly, this wall was not built against the wishes of the US government, but instead to please the federal government. The wall was built by a White housing developer in order to gain a FHA insurance (providing great deals on mortgages). Before building the wall, the government denied the White developers the loan. After building the wall, the government accepted the loan. Again, the wall was built in 1941 in a northern city with the full endorsement of the federal government.
Facts like these destroy a certain myth about America, the “clean” narrative that racism is some long-forgotten monster (confined to the south of course) that was undid completely by the magic beans of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, leading to one giant melting pot where we all live happily ever after.
Wrong. Racism was a concerted and intentional force of nature fully enabled and promoted by the United States government well into the 20th century.
Government-sponsored racism occurred not just in Alabama and Mississippi, but also Detroit, Cleveland, San Francisco, Miami, and pretty much any other urban center you can think of.
Richard Rothstein’s book, “The Color of Law,” pokes holes in the ‘history book’ narrative of our not-so-post-racial society. I recently read this book, and my main takeaway was how many different ways that our federal, state, and local government directly played a role in racially segregating the country. These policies of segregation eventually ended, but there were no efforts to undo their effects. We still live in segregation’s shadow.
“The Color of Law”
The main argument put forward by Richard Rothstein is that America has created a caste system through systematic exploitation and geographic separation of African Americans through “racially explicit government policies” .
That’s a fancy way of saying that this was intentional, it was not hidden, and it was meant to keep African American people subjugated and separated from White society.
It’s a damning claim, but one that Rothstein backs up with direct evidence from local ordinances, federal laws, and other primary source documentation.
Here are just a few of the government-sponsored segregation methods that Rothstein discusses in the book:
- New Deal programs: In order to stimulate the economy after the Great Depression in the 1930s and 1940s, President Roosevelt created various government programs such as the CCC, the PWA, and the TVA. The PWA (Public Works Administration), for example, created thousands of ‘whites only’ and ‘blacks only’ housing projects across America, from the north to the south .
- Public Housing: Public housing projects built to help low-income people furthered pre-existing segregation. In Detroit, for example, public housing for low-income people was put in predominantly African American neighborhoods and far away from predominantly White neighborhoods. Policies like this ensured that low income and Black neighborhoods stayed one and the same.
- FHA and HOLC: This is a big one. In order to encourage middle-class families to buy single-family homes in suburbs, US President Franklin Roosevelt created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in order to issue lower-interest, more favorable mortgages to struggling citizens. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created to insure bank mortgages of these more favorable HOLC mortgages. In order to assess a neighborhood’s risk, HOLC created color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the country. Guess What? If a neighborhood had any African Americans who lived in it, that neighborhood received the highest level of risk (even if it was a middle-class neighborhood). As for the FHA, they made an intentional policy of insuring homes only if they “continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” The FHA rejected their great mortgages to African Americans (due to their perceived high risk) or to Whites in Black neighborhoods; this encouraged White people to move to all-White suburbs, where their mortgages would be guaranteed at great rates. By 1950, the FHA was insuring about half of homes nation-wide. This essentially meant that state-sponsored segregation took hold in metropolitan areas: cities (black and low income) and newly-formed suburbs (white families). This is more or less the same system that exists today .
- US courts: The Supreme Court, federal courts, and local courts repeatedly upheld racist housing covenants set up by private White organizations to keep Black people out of their neighborhoods. In hundreds of cases, time after time, judges said that neighborhoods and towns that excluded people based on race did not violate the constitution because they were private agreements. This occurred until the mid-late twentieth century, and there were never any government efforts to undo the damage caused .
- IRS and taxes: Often, racist restrictive housing covenants were endorsed by churches. On Chicago’s south side for example, signatures for a whites-only neighborhood covenant were jointly organized by the priest of a catholic church and the rabbi of a temple. Nonetheless, the many religious figures and institutions that played a role in promoting segregation continued to pay no taxes. The IRS sat aside and watched as this all played out when they should have stripped these peoples’ tax exempt status for promoting segregation .
- Police-enabled violence: There were hundreds of acts of violence towards Black families who tried to move into predominantly White neighborhoods, and these acts were not taken seriously and even supported by the police. In 1957, Bill and Daisy Myers, an African American couple, bought a home in Levittown, Pennsylvania, which had a covenant that banned African Americans. Around 600 demonstrators showed up to throw rocks at the family, fly the Confederate Flag, and blast music all night. Police were given orders to not interfere with rioters, and they sat back for months as crosses were burned, a KKK symbol was painted on a next door house, and the Myers’ home was vandalized. After months, the state of Pennsylvania took action against the rioters, but Bill and Daisy Myers moved away from Levittown, Pennsylvania several years after they moved in. Acts like these proved that racism occurred with government enabling not just in the south, but in places all over the country, such as Chicago, Detroit, Miami, and Pennsylvania .
Implications of the Book on Our Society
Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” changes the game because he asserts that segregation happened in large part because of intentional government policy and decisions, not just the incidental decisions of private citizens.
The implication of this is that the government needs to have a central role in resolving harm created from segregation.
The harm is stark: today, the median white family income is about $60,000 and the median black family income is about $37,000; however, median White household wealth is about $134,000 while median Black household wealth is about $11,000 .
I will repeat that statistic: median White household wealth is about $134,000 while median Black household wealth is about $11,000.
What that means is that White children, on average, receive a huge advantage from the day they are born. Wealth breeds stability, protection from emergencies, and leisures that provide a stable upbringing. White privilege in its purest and most factual form.
Where did that wealth disparity come from? A large part of that is because White families took advantage of FHA/HOLC mortgages that were largely obscured from Black families, who could not buy homes in the suburbs because their very presence in a neighborhood made their loan uninsurable according to FHA/HOLC guidelines.
Look at housing prices over time. If a White family bought a single-family home in 1963, on average, they would have accumulated nearly $200,000 in wealth from that home. What happens to that wealth? It trickles down to the next generation…of White Americans. Black Americans stay stuck because they continued to rent, mostly unable to buy homes in the lily White suburbs.
Because of Rothstein’s evidence that government policies played such a direct role in this segregation, the government has an obligation to help fix this. Rothstein proposes a variety of fixes to all of the problems.
For example, he suggests the government buying up properties in predominantly White suburbs at today’s market prices (e.g. $350,000) and resold to African Americans for discounted prices that their Grandparents should have been entitled to (e.g. $75,000). He also suggests banning ordinances on zoning rules that ban multifamily housing (e.g. apartments) in largely single-family neighborhoods. These rules obviously affect people of color (who have much less wealth) more than White Americans, and they are “racist without saying they are racist” type of rules .
Ultimately and sadly, these solutions would be unpalatable to a large majority of (White) Americans, who are very content with the current state of affairs and who prefer to pretend that racial segregation is an incidental phenomenon that has no attribution to their government or their ancestors.
Implications of the Book on Our Schools
Ah, yes. Education. The whole point of my blog.
The implications of government-sponsored and government-enabled segregation are huge on our education system. The wealth accrued due to segregation directly leads to who has money today. Then, this lack of school diversity in a diverse country creates a caste system, one that reverberates into schools.
Here’s a generalized view of these castes: (obviously these are generalizations)
Upper caste: Largely white and upper income kids go to the quality schools in the suburbs, lavished with all the trappings of the good life: working air conditioning and heating, happy and experienced teachers, music, art, activities, students who stay in the same schools, and parental involvement in school.
Lower caste: Largely people of color and lower income kids go to low quality schools in the inner city. In fact, their schools are the ones that shut down in favor of inconsistent (and often for-profit) charter schools. Students in these schools face inexperienced and ineffective teachers (who leave for the stable ‘burbs as soon as they can), dilapidated school conditions, poverty, violence in and out of school, and trauma faced due to the effects of poverty.
If you don’t believe that this is true, try being a teacher like I have been for the last half decade. I have taught in various urban and suburban schools. My finding? Schools match the communities that they are in. Housing and economics matter when it comes to schools. Period. The two are inexorably intertwined.
Don’t believe me? Look at this list put together by School Niche of Metro Detroit’s top schools for 2018. Suburban schools where largely White families have accrued wealth through their housing are right at the top. Birmingham, Troy, Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe. Obviously, lots of new money has flooded these suburbs in the last half-century, but plenty of old money remains from the days when the FHA and HOLC made sure that those suburbs would remains ‘Whites only.’ Nothing has been done to rectify this injustice. So what can be done to undo segregation in the schools?
As I argued in my last blog post, school of choice has been an ineffective solution to the school segregation; low income and African American parents largely end up with their choices of ineffective and inadequate urban public schools, subpar and corrupt charter schools, and the worst inner-ring suburban school districts. Real “school of choice” would give low income parents the option to send their kids en masse to truly quality schools; this will never happen because upper income White parents would simply withdraw their students into other schools before the effect could take place.
Honestly, I am stuck after that. Until America and its people come to terms with its racist past, no honest and properly comprehensive change can be made to change this injustice. For now, we must learn the truth and educate others about the truth.
 Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017. Pp. 54.