Land Ownership and Social Justice: How Our Cities and Towns Became Segregated

This may take you by surprise: “We’ve left untouched the biggest segregation of all, that overwhelms everything else, and hangs over our entire society, and that is that every metropolitan area in this country is residentially segregated….And all of us accept this as part of the natural environment.” (Richard Rothstein in NowThis)

How did this happen? Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, reveals the complex history of the relationship between land ownership and social justice.

In his book, Rothstein argues that America’s cities are racially segregated due to a number of deliberate government actions taken at the federal, state and local level over the course of the 20th century that explicitly forced People of Color to live in different areas from white people. The impacts of these policies still reverberate across our racial landscape today.

“There were many, many federal, state, and local policies—racially-explicit policies—all designed to ensure that African Americans and whites could not live near one another in any metropolitan area of this country,” Rothstein noted during a keynote address at a recent land use and sustainable development conference hosted by the Pace University Land Use Law Center.

Two federal policies of the mid-20 century intentionally segregated metropolitan areas: the creation of the first public housing programs, and subsidizing development of the suburbs. Land or homes in the suburbs often were only sold to white buyers and had deed restrictions prohibiting resale to anyone “other than the Caucasian Race”—which, for generations, prevented People of Color from owning homes there.

Rothstein told Slate in an interview about his book: “The federal government subsidized bank loans to mass production builders of suburbs everywhere in the country on condition that those builders sell no homes to African-Americans and on further condition that the builders place clauses in their deeds prohibiting owners from selling their homes to African Americans.”

Such policies existed across the country, including here in the Hudson Highlands, where there are deed restrictions as late as the 1950-60s that read “The premises shall not be sold, leased to or occupied by any other than the Caucasian Race.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 brought an end to these discriminatory practices, but did not reverse the inequities already established. Not only were African Americans and other People of Color deprived of historic housing and financing subsidies, they now also faced the barrier of housing price appreciation.

“The result is that today nationwide, African-American incomes on average are about 60 percent of white incomes, but African-American wealth is about 5 to 7 percent of white wealth. That enormous difference is almost entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy practiced in the mid-20th century,” Rothstein told NPR.

Local zoning laws are another mechanism that have been used to segregate cities and towns. In the early 20th century, zoning laws prevented white families from purchasing homes and property in African American neighborhoods, and vice versa. This practice was ultimately outlawed, but municipalities continued to use underhanded tactics, like zoning African American neighborhoods for industrial development or toxic waste disposal, to create pricing disparities and other hurdles that reinforced racial segregation and barriers to wealth.

Plus, Rothstein states in his Pace Land Use Center keynote address, “Suburbs that were created on a racially exclusive basis—explicitly by government policy—now maintain that racial exclusion with a race-neutral zoning policy that prohibits the construction of anything but single-family homes on large lot sizes.”

As noted above, the lack of historic subsidies and land/house price appreciation makes areas zoned this way inaccessible to people in lower income brackets. Rothstein suggests that options like subsidizing first-time homeownership for working families and modification of zoning ordinances in affluent suburbs to provide for multi-family housing, including affordably-priced rental apartments, would help remedy the issue.

Much of this history has been overlooked by the people who benefited from it. But segregation has continued well into the 21st century as a result of federal, state, and local policies whose legacy persists long after they were outlawed.

How can we move toward equity in land and home ownership?

Rothstein offers several remedies in his book, but makes clear we must recognize that our racial landscape was created by government policies before we can design effective solutions: “If segregation happened by accident, then it is convenient to believe it only can be remedied indirectly, or by accident. But if we understand it is a government creation, then we are forced to confront the imperative for remedial action. As I wrote, letting bygones be bygones is not a policy worthy of a constitutional democracy,” Rothstein said in the Washington Post.

Without truly understanding how we got here, we will not be able to effectively tackle the racial inequities—including those of land ownership and stewardship—that our nation is grappling with today: “How can we ever expect to develop the common national identity that we need to preserve this democracy if so many African Americans and whites live so far from each other that we have no ability to understand each other and no ability to empathize with each other’s life experiences? Those are the ongoing consequences of the unconstitutional policies that we practiced in the mid-20th century.” (Richard Rothstein in his Pace Land Use Center keynote address)