The Color of Law: Book Summary

By Jon Henning •  Updated: 01/04/23 •  21 min read

The Book in 1 Sentence

Every city in America is segregated on the basis of race, and the U.S Government, financial institutions, and the real estate industry are directly responsible — but in the 20th century, these entities can and must help remedy the systemic and discriminatory actions of their past.

🎨 Who Should Read It?

Although this can easily be considered a “tough read” in the emotion sense, anybody who is involved in politics, urban planning, architecture, and education — or ultimately serving the public, should absolutely read this book.

The Color of Law Book Summary

🧠 How the Book Changed Me

⚠️Warning: This book is not joyful. But it reveals a dark truth that you should be aware of.

To change the future, you have to understand the past. This was definitely a hard one to get through for me, and I had to pause many times throughout the book just to contemplate… How could this happen? How have we gotten to where we are as a society? How can we fix this? Morality and responsibility are two things that we must constantly reflect on, and this book provides all of the ingredients to inspire change.

✍️ My Top Quote

“You have no right to use housing against civil rights… Housing is advanced in the interest of the general welfare and in the interest of strengthening democracy. When you separate civil rights from housing, you weaken that general welfare.”


🔑 Key Concepts for Designers, Planners and Architects (to be aware of)

(Click for definitions)

📒 Book Chapters

  1. “If San Francisco, then Everywhere?”
  2. “Public Housing, Black Ghettos”
  3. “Racial Zoning”
  4. “Own Your Own Home”
  5. “Private Agreements, Government Enforcement”
  6. “White Flight”
  7. “IRS Support and Compliant Regulators”
  8. “Local Tactics”
  9. “State-Sanctioned Violence”
  10. “Suppressed Incomes”
  11. “Looking Forward, Looking Back”
  12. “Considering Fixes”

Book Summary


Richard Rothstein argues that all cities in the U.S have been developed under the visage of “systemic and forceful” government action, resulting in racial segregation and inequality in every city as a ‘whole’. African Americans did not have the same equal opportunities as whites, and were ultimately barred from having choice in homeownership. As a result, African Americans were confined to ghettos and impoverished neighborhoods, and opportunities for education, career growth, and healthy lifestyles were out of sight.

Rothstein brings to our attention that although these injustices occurred over 60 years ago, the same issues of inequality and segregation are prevalent in our governments, financial institutions, and real estate industries today. The issue of housing segregation is especially difficult to remedy, because citizens are physically tied to the places they live — and resolutions for fixing racial segregation will require an immense amount of time and support from not only the U.S government, but the citizens that make up the urban fabric of American cities today.

Chapter 1: “If San Francisco, then Everywhere?”

💭 The Federal government purposely created segregation in every metropolitan area of the nation.

Rothstein introduces the book in 1948, with an image of African Americans working with whites in a Ford plant. The story of Frank Stevenson unfolds. As one of 7 brothers born in Lake Providence, Louisiana in 1924 (the ‘poorest place in America’ at the time), Stevenson explains how access to education was physically impossible for blacks. When he moved to Richmond, California, he began his position at the Ford manufacturing plant — and Richmond was growing rapidly during World War II. Public housing was being constructed, and the “Rollingwood” suburb grew as a result of public housing being funded and build by the government in Eisenhower’s leadership. They even established a “war guest” program, which leased spare rooms from Richmond’s white families so that workers could move in as tenants. Yet, African Americans were not allowed to live in these comfortable suburbs, and were forced to move to poorly constructed, multi-tenant housing in industrial neighborhoods (or on the streets).

After the war, the Ford factory was moved over an hour away and Stevenson recalls not being able to “squeeze into the limited number of public housing units”, and since there were no “war guest” or other government programs available to assist African American workers, Stevenson found himself in an unincorporated part of the city that provided no services — living with an elderly women in which he exchanged maintenance for rent.

Many African Americans were not as fortunate, and were forced to live in shacks made of cheap materials — even cardboard — just to have shelter in proximity to where they were working. To add to this, the US government and President of California Real Estate Association, named Floyd Lowe, panicked white families into listing their homes for sale out of fear of a growing number of African Americans moving into inner-city neighborhoods — a practice known as blockbusting.

“At the time, the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration not only refused to insure mortgages for African Americans in designated white neighborhoods like Ladera; they also would not insure mortgages for whites in a neighborhood where African Americans were present. Within six years the population of East Palo Alto was 82 percent black. Conditions deteriorated as African Americans who had been excluded from other neighborhoods doubled up in single-family homes. Their East Palo Alto houses had been priced so much higher than similar properties for whites that the owners had difficulty making payments without additional rental income. Federal and state housing policy had created a slum in East Palo Alto.”

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (p. 13)

Chapter 2: “Public Housing, Black Ghettos”

💭 “We can only wonder what our urban areas would look like today if, instead of creating segregation where it never, or perhaps barely, existed, federal and local governments had pushed in the opposite direction, using public housing as an example of how integrated living could be successful.”

Focusing on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Rothstein examines how the social programs set forth in the 1930’s was blatantly unfair to African Americans. On a surface level, the idea of “public housing” seemed like a sure way to help a post-depression American society get back on its feet — but the way in which policies targeted the locations of social housing further exacerbated segregation. Not only did the Public Works Administration (PWA) create a stigma around social housing (targeting white families to avoid living in them), but they also worked with civic leaders on the “composition of neighborhoods”, and segregated projects to black neighborhoods. They claimed that their decisions were based on “previous patterns of segregation”, yet this was a calculated decision which created a cycle of disproportionate opportunities between whites and blacks.

Additionally, the ‘projects’ buildings were constructed of low quality materials that degraded rapidly, creating spaces that were often deemed “inhabitable”. To further deepen racial segregation, the PWA installed many “whites-only” projects in mixed neighborhoods — condensing African American families into living in low-quality homes. With limited access to resources, these neighborhoods eventually became slums. By the 1940s, white families found shelter in the private market — or in other words, they began to purchase and own their homes. Living in the projects was no longer “for whites”. High-rise ghettos made it impossible for community life to thrive, and access to jobs and social services was even more difficult. and African Americans became more removed from mainstream society than ever.By the 1970s, social housing projects had completely collapsed.

Nixon, who was president at the time, announced that “public housing should not be forced on white communities that didn’t want it”, and that many public housing projects were “monstrous, depressing places — run down, overcrowded, crime-ridden.”

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Chapter 3: “Racial Zoning”

💭 Zoning had two faces. One face… attempted to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods by making it more challenging to afford good housing. The other face protected white neighborhoods from deterioration by keeping environmentally unsafe business away from them.

Residential integration declined in the 1880s, despite the period of black liberation known as “Reconstruction”. Starting back in the 1910s, cities implemented a variety of laws that prevented racial integration in real estate. White families were discouraged and not approved to purchase property on city blocks that had a majority population of African Americans. Municipalities came up with deceptively ‘clever’ tactics using religion and law to reinforce racial segregation — such as creating a law banning interracial marriage, which in turn prohibited people from “residing on a street where they were ineligible to marry a majority of those already living there.”

Economic zoning was practiced to reserve middle-class neighborhoods for single-family homes, which made it impossible for any lower-income family of all races to afford. As housing opportunities continued to wane for African American families, zoning ordinances used economics as a catalyst for de jure segregation.

Industrial zoning — or even more toxic, “waste zoning” aimed to turn African American neighborhoods into slums. Planning committees made excuses for placing junkyards and waste facilities in African American neighborhoods, claiming that growing white neighborhoods had become “business communities”. Not only that, but African American communities that suffered as a result of “waste zoning” were seldom given additional support or compensatory actions to offset the negative effects of pollution.

Chapter 4: “Own Your Own Home”

💭 “The Housing industry, aided and abetted by Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing… Government and private industry came together to create a system of residential segregation.”

While African Americans struggled to become homeowners in the early 1900s, politics and global warfare bolstered the notion of being an “American Citizen” in that those who truly wanted to do their “patriotic duty” and support capitalism economy would attempt to own their own home. Franklin D. Roosevelt published a pamphlet that explained “How to Own Your Own Home”, and encouraged homebuyers to consider racial conditions of potential neighborhoods. Furthermore, school students were awarded buttons to wear around stating “We Own Our Own Home”, creating apparent social separation in younger generations.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) partook in racial screening by using the real estate industry to “make appraisals on which refinancing decisions could be based”, and created color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the nation. If African Americans lived in a neighborhood, it was colored red — and this in turn made an excuse for real estate industries to turn down investors, even if they were credit-worthy.

Chapter 5: “Private Agreements, Government Enforcement”

💭 It wasn’t until the 1970s before federal government ruled that restrictive covenants violated the Fair Housing Act through the Fourteenth Amendment.

Deeds were created to forbid the resale of property to African Americans (and in the early 19th century, this included natives of Ireland), and these clauses were termed “restrictive covenants” that were able to bypass the Buchanan racial zoning decision. By the 1930s, many metropolises enforced deeds that barred sales or rentals to African American areas — and developers organized real estate associations to preserve racial segregation. Planning committees, such as Harland Bartholomew’s in 1931, stated that “all neighborhoods should have ‘appropriate restrictions’”, creating prohibitions that only benefited the developer and the owner (such as to protect the property from “the deteriorating influence of undesirable neighbors”).

Even though these covenants were eventually ruled unconstitutional in 1948 by the Supreme Court, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) continued to promote them. Despite the FHA telling the New York Times that they would not insure developers who refused to sell or rent to African Americans, the agency continued to finance developments.

Chapter 6: “White Flight”

💭 “Blockbusting could work only because the FHA made certain the African Americans had few alternative neighborhoods where they could purchase homes at fair market values.”

FHA property values could become self-fullfilling, where development speculators and real estate agents could collude in tactics called Blockbusting. In borderline black-white areas, these agencies sold property to African Americans above market value, then proclaimed that the neighborhoods were becoming “African American slums”, creating fear and offering to purchase white-owned homes for under-market values. Additional tactics included “paying African American women to push carriages with their babies through white neighborhoods”, and “hiring African American men to drive cars with radios blasting through white neighborhoods”. Blockbusting tactics even went as far as staging burglaries in white communities to give the illusion that these neighborhoods were becoming unsafe.

The only group who benefited from these schemes were developer and real estate agencies, as they would essentially scam African American families into buying over-valued property, and under-buying white families when they decided to sell out of fear of living in an unsafe community. Over time, white families began to move to metropolitan areas, leaving inner-urban communities for African Americans. These all-black neighborhoods are referred to as blockbusted communities, and the implication of discriminatory and unconstitutional politics hindered growth and opportunities for anybody living in them.

Chapter 7: “IRS Support and Compliant Regulators”

💭 “By failing to ensure that banks fulfilled the public purposes for which they were chartered, regulators shared responsibility for reverse redlining of African American communities. When federal and state regulatory agencies chartered banks and thrift institutions whose unhidden policy was racial discrimination, the agencies themselves defaulted on their constitutional obligations.”

Rothstein brings to our attention how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ultimately enforced segregation. African American families were packed into urban projects, and white families dispersed into single-family suburban homes. Although the IRS has an obligation to avoid tax favoritism from discriminatory organizations, there is sufficient evidence that — like many other federal organizations — their actions did not follow their word.

Insurance companies devised sly methods to have the government to approve of discriminatory acts. For example, in 1938, an insurance company wanted to build a 12,000-unit apartment complex in New York City, but the company “could not proceed without an amendment to the state’s insurance code, permitting insurers to invest in low-rent housing.” At the time, it was not advised, due to “risk management”, yet state legislature approved the amendment knowing that the project would ultimately be excluding African Americans. After getting approved, the developer claimed that the project would be “for whites only”, and that mixing races would “depress all of the surrounding properties.” Despite having ordinances that forbade racial segregation, another ordinance was created for the city to engage in “slum clearance”, which helped support racial segregation strategies by insurance companies.

Even in recent decades, in 2008 (before the collapse of the housing bubble causing a massive recession), lenders offered subprime loans to African American and Hispanic families. When the economy collapsed, these homes went into foreclosure and neighborhoods were completely destroyed. And still today, insurance companies are now selling these foreclosed properties to low and moderate-income households with high interest rates, high down payments, and no possible equity to accumulate until the contract is fulfilled (the property is paid for in full). This creates an uphill battle for the lower and lower-middle class families, and the opportunities of homeownership dwindles.

Chapter 8: “Local Tactics”

💭 Infrastructure projects created physical boundaries through inner-city communities, and schools were strategically preserved in marginalized communities, creating unequal opportunities between whites and blacks.

Local governments have the power to stop integration, and used “extraordinary creativity” to exclude African Americans from living in safe neighborhoods. Using re-zoning, local governments could re-route interstate highways through specific neighborhoods — which were typically African American neighborhoods. Not only did these infrastructure project displace many families, but they also created physical boundaries that hindered accessibility to social services, healthcare, and other government entities. Knowing that many of those who lived in these neighborhoods were low-income, or middle-class families, government agencies supported the construction of these physical barriers, which would lead to an inevitable social collapse of these neighborhoods.

Black communities continued to become marginalized from local government plans, and schools were strategically shut down in both white and black neighborhoods. As rezoning occurred in conjunction with infrastructure expansion, local governments often preserved existing schools — but only in racially mixed, inner-city communities. As white families moved to the suburbs, new schools were built. This further-influenced white families to move out of the city, as the prospect of up-to-date education opportunities for children was appealing.

Chapter 9: “State-Sanctioned Violence”

💭 “State-sponsored violence was a means, along with many others, by which all levels of government maintained segregation. How long do the memories of such events last? How long do they continue to intimidate?”

Rothstein focuses on the 1950s through the 1980s in this chapter, and shared graphic accounts of racism against African Americans choosing to live in what were considered “white-only” communities. Homes were sold by white homeowners in suburban areas to African Americans (above market prices), knowing that they were desperate for better housing. In the case of Levittown in the 1950s — a community where many World War II veterans lived — a white homeowner sold their home to an African American man named Bill Myers (who was a staff sergeant in WWII and held a job as a lab technician in an engineering department), and his wife Daisy Myers (a college graduate, and mother of three). Quickly upon moving into this “white neighborhood”, they were met with resistance from neighbors who simply wanted them gone — and resorted to violence in the form of vandalism and arson.

Despite it being a “safe” neighborhood, local law enforcement did little to combat the violence against the Myers family, and even claimed that it was a “needless worry” — essentially turning a blind eye to the only African American family living in this community.

Rothstein highlights a number of other brutal cases of racism and violence, and how local enforcement did little to nothing to assist African American families being harassed by their white neighbors. In some cases, the families that were being abused were actually punished by law enforcement.

Chapter 10: “Suppressed Incomes”

💭 “It is certainly true that one cause of segregation today is the inability of many African Americans to afford to live in middle-class communities. But segregation itself has had a high cost for African Americans, exacerbating their inability to save to purchase suburban homes.”

Taking a look at the gap that persists between African Americans and whites, Rothstein shares a number of accounts that highlight income inequality. To get a deeper perspective on the notion of systemic racism, Rothstein goes all the way back to the Civil War era, when African Americans were often arrested for petty offenses and punished harshly. It is estimated that between the end of the Reconstruction Era through World War II, the number of African Americans “legally enslaved” exceeded 100,000. Ways of “enslaving” involved forcing those arrested from these petty crimes to work in hard-labor jobs, such as factories, plantations, and mines — where they would make little money to “pay” the court fees for their petty crimes.

In the 1930s, the government suppressed wage-earning opportunities for African Americans. For example, the post-war unions that many African Americans worked at during World War II would not refer them to companies — and many companies required a referral to qualify for a position.

In so many other cases, African Americans completed the same jobs as whites, yet they were often not eligible to receive bonuses or additional income per company guidelines — no matter their skill level. This resulting in many African American families having little to no exposable income that they could save, or pass down to further generations to use for new opportunities, such as college education.

Chapter 11: “Looking Forward, Looking Back”

💭 “The ongoing income stagnation of working-class families and the growing distance between job opportunities and affordable housing makes the need for subsidized housing more pronounced. African Americans will continue to be harmed as segregation is perpetuated.”

Rothstein points out how even today, many African American families simply cannot afford to move to white neighborhoods. Over 100 years of deceptive political tactics have resulted in inequality for African Americans in so many ways — from employment opportunities to housing. Decades of exclusion will take decades of change to undo. Considering the idea that cities are made of neighborhoods, neighborhoods are made of homes that will remain for generations to come, there are no quick-fix solutions to rectify centuries of abuse caused by the Federal government, insurance companies, real estate industries, and so many others.

Rothstein refers to Patrick Sharkey, a New York University sociologist who analyzed data on race and neighborhood conditions in 2013, and reported his findings in a booked called “Stuck in Place”. These studies take an in-depth look at poverty in the U.S, and how “young African Americans are now ten times as likely to live in poor neighborhoods as young whites.”

Rothstein states that “the US government cannot remain neutral about segregation”, and that they will either “exacerbate it or reverse it”, fearing that exacerbation is more likely a result moving forward.

Chapter 12: “Considering Fixes”

💭 What can we do?

What can be done? Rothstein concludes the book targeting questions about segregation, equality and policy. Pointing out that most Americans are “too cowardly” or “cynical” to face history, he suggests that there are policy proposals that can have a positive affect on helping to fix decades of issues caused by racism and segregation. Policy suggestions include: governments being able to compensate for losses accrued by African American homeowners, and when homes for sale arise in now-white neighborhoods, those homes could be sold to qualifying African Americans for the price that their grandparents would have paid (for example, a home sold for $350,000 in today’s market could be sold to a qualifying African American family for $75,000).

Real estate industries could focus on helping to integrate neighborhoods (not to force integration by any means, but to make it more appealing). Local governments should have limited zoning powers, and tax incentives for all-white neighborhoods could be suspended to help encourage integration.

Purchase The Book:

Anybody who feels a moral responsibility to make our world a better place to live should read this book. My summary of “The Color of Law” only scratches the surface of the content that Rothstein provides, and I strongly recommend you purchase the book to learn more.

Jon Henning

Hi, I'm Jon. I write about emerging technology in architecture, engineering and design, and I want to help you push boundaries with the latest tech trends in the AEC industry.

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