‘Government at all levels created segregation’: author Rothstein says ahead of HBG appearance

Richard Rothstein speaks at Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar bookstore on June 3 at 6 p.m.

By: - May 15, 2023 6:30 am
The cover of author Richard Rothstein's new book (submitted).

The cover of author Richard Rothstein’s new book (submitted).

Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar Bookstore hosts author Richard Rothstein on Saturday, June 3, at 6 p.m. He will discuss his latest book Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted under the Color of Law, co-authored with his daughter Leah Rothstein.

Author Richard Rothstein (submitted photo).
Author Richard Rothstein (submitted photo).

Just Action follows his previous book, The Color of Law, in which Rothstein argues “government at all levels created segregation” by policies enacted over a long period of time. He addresses “how we can begin to undo it [segregation].”

The Rev. Natosha Reid Rice, vice president of Habitat for Humanity International, said “This book will change minds, inspire public will, and revive communities.” 

The Capital-Star spoke by phone with Rothstein about his research and recommendations on how to proactively reverse segregation. 

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Residential segregation, you argue, underlies our most serious social problems – poor school performance, less access to early childhood care and preschool programs, and low access to nutritious foods. Are these the factors that lead to what is called the ‘achievement gap’?

Richard Rothstein: “It’s not only the achievement gap in schools. It’s also health disparities. Poorer neighborhoods are more polluted, more stressful. When you concentrate the most disadvantaged young men in single neighborhoods, it’s inevitable that there are going to be confrontations with the police. I’m not saying the police would never abuse a young Black man if he weren’t living in a segregated neighborhood, but their interactions are more intense as a result of residential segregation.

Q: How does Defund the Police figure into this scenario? Could it mean we need to find ways to redirect funds to different purposes rather than spending all the funds on enforcement?

A: Defund the police is not a solution to this problem. I understand the sentiment, but I don’t think they successfully walked their slogan back from what many thought as a literal recommendation. It’s certainly true that we need many more social services in poor neighborhoods. It’s also true that we don’t need the police being furnished with military equipment.

Q: So, it’s not necessarily the case that we need to find money for social services in police budgets since lack of social services is a different issue?

If You Go:
An evening with Richard Rothstein and Leah Rothstein:  Just Action
Saturday, June 3, 2023, 6 p.m.-7 p.m.
Midtown Scholar Bookstore, 1302 North 3rd Street, Harrisburg, Pa., 17102
More information here.

A: I find it tragic that we spend so little on social and mental health services, on education. Improvements in these kinds of services would help to make low-income, segregated neighborhoods safer places to live.

Q: You make the startling statement that “government at all levels created segregation” by policies enacted over a long period of time. What’s your starting point with that conclusion?

A: We live in an apartheid nation regarding housing. The most powerful policy I describe in my previous book The Color of Law was the move to encourage suburbanization of the white working class and middle class on a racially explicit basis by the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration.

Defund the police is not a solution to this problem

– Richard Rothstein

This is the direct result of explicit. government policy racially explicit government policy designed to ensure that blacks and whites. could not live near one another in any metropolitan area of the country.

Following World War II, the Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration ushered in an era of subsidized housing. The federal government made it a condition of participating real estate developers that no homes be sold, or rented, to African-Americans. There were ‘deed clauses’ disallowing sales to blacks. Suburbanization of the middle- and working classes had begun but did not include everyone. There is no legal remedy for it today. That is why the solutions fall to locally-based racial justice activists. Racial segregation is not simply a result of poverty. Consider that low-income African-Americans live in poorer neighborhoods with fewer resources overall than whites with the same low incomes.

Q: Does that change for African Americans with higher incomes?

A: Not really. Middle-class African Americans also often live in much poorer neighborhoods than middle-class whites who have identical incomes. Middle-class African Americans live not only in poorer neighborhoods, but their middle-class neighborhoods are also frequently adjacent to poor neighborhoods, unlike typical white middle-class neighborhoods. It’s about the segregation, not only the poverty that underlies our most serious social problems.

Q: The federal housing policies of the FHA and VA dramatically changed how we all live now compared to before the policies were enacted.

A: Before implementation, much of the white working class was living in urban areas. Because we were a manufacturing economy, whites and blacks had to live near the factories where they worked, and the factories needed to be near ports or railroad terminals to ship their final products. So, we had racially mixed downtown areas in many parts of the country. It is not the case that every other house was a different race, but many downtown areas were broadly racially mixed.

Q: You’ve basically described Harrisburg after World War II and into the 60s when the first ‘white flight’ occurred following riots in 1968. Neighborhoods were more mixed. There were, and are, railroads along an existing industrial track with neighborhoods on either side of the tracks. Residents lived in neighborhoods from which they could walk to work.

A: The term white flight is misleading. It implies that all this happened because whites wanted to leave. The reality is that the federal government subsidized them to leave through housing policies.

Any returning working-class white or black war veteran could have afforded a home at the price for which they were sold in the postwar period (about $100,000 in today’s money) But the reality is that by federal government policy only whites could buy them. Over the next couple of generations their real estate appreciated in value. Whites gained wealth while African-Americans were relegated to remain in these urban areas which became more deteriorated.

Q: What about our economic system as a whole?

A: We have a very unequal economic system that needs reform benefitting both blacks and whites, Hispanics, and others. Segregation impacts the economic inequality faced by African- Americans in ways that are more extreme than the impact on whites.

Q: Who do you see as the instigators of change in lessening the impacts of residential segregation?

A: Historically, we didn’t desegregate restaurants with lawsuits. We desegregated it because four students sat in at lunch counters. A change in policies was forced. We desegregated public transportation because Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. I’m not suggesting that local groups would use the same tactics today.

These are different times with different circumstances and challenges. But some lessons learned in the 60s are applicable. People’s conditions change. Approaches may differ but racial justice and activists, and community organizers can effect change. Looking to the federal government or the courts to fix this problem is the wrong place to look.

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Frank Pizzoli
Frank Pizzoli

Frank Pizzoli, the former editor and publisher of the Central Voice, writes about the issues that matter to Pennsylvania's LGBTQ residents.