If you want an eye-opening gut punch about racism in America, read The Color of Law. Released in 2017 the book documents the history of state-sponsored segregation, all the way from the 1800s to the post-war era. It meticulously documents the ways that segregation was perpetrated in American cities and exposes the ongoing cover-up of it. The book has been referenced dozens of times in politics, including by Kamala Harris in a speech during her 2019 presidential bid.
The unrelenting author of the book is Richard Rothstein. He was an education columnist for the New York Times in his early career. During his time as a journalist, he realized how, despite the formal end of segregation in the country, schools remain dramatically racially divided. In his mind, the root cause of this divide had to do with the legacy of segregation in our cities, which has pushed people of color out of certain, white-owned, areas and into less desirable ones. He has been writing and advocating about the topic ever since.
I was lucky enough to be able to interview Richard for an article I wrote about the debt the real estate industry owes to African American communities. He helped me understand just how impactful the history of segregation remains in our country and in the real estate industry. Later, he asked me for help. He was writing an article about the racially restrictive covenants in some of America’s first suburbs. I did some digging and found the language used in one of those covenants. Eventually, the story was published in the New York Times in a piece called The Black Lives Next Door.
I had talked to Richard a few times since and knew that he was planning on retiring, spending the rest of his days with his grandkids and playing tennis in his well-deserved golden years. So it was surprising when I got an email from him announcing the publication of a new book, Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law. In the email, he explains that the book was actually a family affair, co-written with his daughter Leah. The aim of the book was to answer the question that Rothstein likely got thousands of times after people would read his book: “What can we do about it now?”
The answer, of course, is nuanced. “We are careful not to say what communities should do, because every case is so different,” Leah explained. “But one thing we do know is that if we are concerned with challenging segregation then we shouldn’t concentrate poverty in one area.” One of the devastating effects of segregation is that minority communities are often pushed into the most impoverished areas which have the worst schools, least job opportunities, and slower home value appreciation. This is a central issue of the book; an entire section is titled Opening Up White Communities. Finding ways to change zoning codes and make low-income housing development possible in majority-white, affluent neighborhoods is a huge goal, but one that can be done.
The book also tackles the issue of gentrification which can help minority communities but also has the negative effect of displacing some of the most vulnerable residents. Gentrification can be used as a reason not to develop once-segregated areas, but this is a mistake according to Leah, “It is not realistic to think that we can invest in those areas without displacement occurring but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t increase the investment. We can also put in place policies like renter protection, just cause eviction, inclusionary zoning for affordable housing that can counteract the unfortunate side effects of investment.” Rather than painting all outside investment in poor neighborhoods as evil she thinks that we need to come to terms with what it means to be a “conscientious gentrifier.”
Regulation is a central theme of the book. It goes through a number of possible ways that local governments can enact laws that would help reverse decades of segregation. This might seem at odds with the goals of the real estate industry but Leah disagrees, “The real estate industry often opposes regulation automatically but there are a lot of reasons that they want diverse, healthy communities.” Since property value is tied to the social and economic fabric of the community it is in or adjacent to, the upward mobility that comes with integration has the ability to be the tide that raises all ships.
The book does a good job of not only pointing out how the property industry was sometimes used as a tool of racism but also how it can be leveraged to make things right. The book pulls no punches when it comes to placing blame for our unfortunate history of property-based discrimination but despite its directness, it has a pleasantly optimistic outlook. Part revisionist history book, part essay on equality (with a sprinkling of memoir) Just Action is an insightful and inspiring read for anyone interested in social justice. It is especially powerful for anyone in the property industry. It is hard to consider all of the racial impacts of any decision related to real estate, but they need to be considered nonetheless. Just Action is a way to fast-track anyone’s understanding of race and real estate. It is the result of a lifetime’s worth of observation, contemplation, and activism and a welcome addition to the ongoing conversation about race in America.