The Denver Foundation Partners with ULC to Host Author Richard Rothstein of “The Color of Law”

Partner Content

By: Christi Smith & Aaron Miripol

The Myth Supporting the American Dream: The Living Legacy of Segregation

ULC was proud to partner with The Denver Foundation on March 5th to host Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America, to speak to a variety of audiences over the course of the day.

The Color of Law describes how American cities became racially divided as federal, state, and local governments systematically imposed policies intended to result in residential segregation. When these practices were compounded by racially purposeful government programs that depressed African American incomes, it became nearly impossible for people of color to move into white neighborhoods. Rothstein highlights case after case that shows how government upheld racist policies to maintain the separation of whites and blacks.

The socio-economic divide experienced in our neighborhoods today is the result of intentionally racist Federal policies. The fact is, as a country we have been made to believe the myth that “de facto” segregation (discrimination occurring solely due to accepted private social norms with no legal or legislative support) occurred in housing and the Supreme Court, therefore, states we are prohibited from doing anything explicitly to remedy this situation by law. According to Rothstein, until the last quarter of the twentieth center, it is clear that the racial discrimination was created by “de jure” segregation (caused by government laws and policies).

The impact of these policies has been devastating for generations of African Americans. Not only did the policies prohibit equitable wealth building opportunities but they systematically over a period of many decades completely denied specific individuals and families of color the right to live in any community of their choice.

The map below shows redlining in Denver in 1938. Redlining was practiced by private banks but created by the Federal Government who then informed the banks, appraisers, and realtors where they could and could not lend using a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured loan. Because of federal government enforced policy, banks and mortgage companies would not lend to African Americans or to persons living directly adjacent to African American homes and neighborhoods.


The passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 did include a policy that prevents future discrimination, but it did not require any measures to reverse decades of previous exclusion and oppression. What we are left with today is a system based on structural racism created by a twentieth-century federal policy that continues to this day.  Reversing this widespread residential discrimination to create equity in the near future requires direct and focused corrective action. Rothstein provided one simple example of potential restitution for African American’s lost wealth-building opportunities. He suggested African American families could by law be given the right and necessary subsidy to purchase homes in highly desirable neighborhoods at the prices that white families were offered decades ago.

As a society, we must teach and fully understand the facts surrounding our nation’s segregationist neighborhood history to ultimately create and use effective methods to reverse today’s neighborhood segregation. Rothstein emphasizes that residential desegregation is as important as or more important than neighborhood revitalization. He also suggests we must come to an understanding that our current racial landscape has grown from government law and policy. Until our society can agree on this fact, communities have little chance of designing remedies that can start to undo and reverse over one hundred years of racial segregation.

“We have created a caste system in this country, with African-Americans, kept exploited and geographically separate by racially explicit government policies,” explains Richard

Rothstein in The Color of Law. “Although most of these policies are now off the books, they have never been remedied and their effects endure.”

About Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and of the Haas Institute at the University of California (Berkeley). He is the author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America. The book expands upon and provides a national perspective on his recent work that has documented the history of state-sponsored residential segregation, as in his report, The Making of Ferguson. He is the author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (2008) and Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (2004). He is also the author of The Way We Were? Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement (1998). Other recent books include The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement (co-authored in 2005; All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different? (co-authored in 2003).




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