The Myth of ‘De Facto Segregation’: How Land-Use Policies Created a Segregated America

The Myth of ‘De Facto Segregation’: How Land-Use Policies Created a Segregated America

Richard Rothstein started out as an education analyst, but says he realized that the education problems in the U.S. can’t be solved without understanding the ways that schools are segregated. And that research led him to neighborhoods — schools are segregated because neighborhoods are, he says.

“Unless we address segregation in neighborhoods, we could not possibly solve the problems that the schools are facing,” Rothstein says.

Rothstein, whose book “The Color of Law” tackles the forgotten history of how our government segregated America, was one of the featured speakers for the 2018 Louisiana Smart Growth Summit, created by the Center for Planning Excellence. We reached out to Rothstein to learn about the myth of “de facto segregation,” the way that land-use policies have shaped segregation and what’s needed to solve these problems.

In your book you talk about how ‘de facto segregation’ is a myth. Can you explain what you mean by that?

De facto segregation is the idea that segregation occurs because of private activity or private prejudice, people wanting to live with other people of the same race. That’s not why neighborhoods are segregated.

Neighborhoods are segregated because of explicit government policy over the course of many decades in the 20th century that ensured African-Americans and whites could not live in the same neighborhoods. And those policies determine the racial landscape of every metropolitan area today.

Why do you think the myth of de facto segregation emerged, and why does it remain popular?

It's widely accepted because it's a convenient excuse not to do anything about the problem. We abolished segregation in the 20th century, and everything from colleges and universities to elementary and secondary schools to water fountains, buses and lunch counters were desegregated. And then having done all that, we left untouched the biggest segregation of all, residential segregation.

It's harder to desegregate neighborhoods than it is to desegregate these other areas of life. If we desegregate water fountains, the next day you drink out of any water foundation. But if you desegregate neighborhoods, the next day things don't look much different.

So we adopted the rationalization that this form of segregation was unlike all the forms of segregation that we abolished in the 20th century, that this one wasn't created by unconstitutional government policy. It's simply the result of private activity.

And the Supreme Court has set down this theory that if a civil rights violation occurs by the government, we're obligated to remedy it. But if a civil rights violation occurs without government participation, then there is no obligation to remedy it.

So the reason we've adopted this myth, in my view, is that it provides us with an excuse to avoid doing something that's very, very difficult.

Are there specific land-use policies that have historically driven neighborhood segregation?

Many, many policies at the federal, state and local level were all racially explicit and designed to ensure that African-Americans and whites couldn't live near one another in any metropolitan area.

One of the most powerful examples would be the policy of the Federal Housing Administration in the mid-20th century to suburbanize the entire white population, to turn urban white populations into single-family homes in all-white suburbs. This suburbanization created the suburbs that we know today around every metropolitan area.

What we have forgotten is that it was done by the Federal Housing Administration on a racially exclusive basis. The largest of these subdivisions, one that's quite well known, is Levittown, east of New York City. But there were hundreds and hundreds of others like this.

Pete Seeger has a song about “little boxes” on the hillside made of ticky-tacky, in fact. That song references a suburb south of San Francisco almost equally as large as Levittown — 15,000 homes there, 17,000 in Levittown. And there are hundreds and hundreds of these suburbs in between San Francisco and New York.

A builder like Levitt could never have assembled the capital to build these developments on their own. No bank would have been crazy enough to lend somebody money to build 15,000 homes in one place when they didn’t yet have any buyers.

The only way that those developments could have been built was through the Federal Housing Administration seeking a guarantee of their bank loans. In order to get that guarantee, the office had to submit their full plans for the subdivision, including a commitment never to sell a home to an African-American. The FHA even required that homes in these developments include a deed clause that prohibited resale to African-Americans or rental to African-Americans. And on this basis, the suburbs were created in this country for whites only, leaving the cities by and large to African-Americans.

This was not the action of rogue bureaucrats. It was explicitly written in the federal housing policy manual that the bank guarantees could not be granted to suburbs that would be integrated.

What’s the remedy? How can we desegregate these neighborhoods now?

The patterns of segregation created by this policy, as well as many, many others, have never been remedied. Simply passing a fair-housing act that says they're now permitted to buy into these suburbs is not effective if the suburbs are now unaffordable to working-class families, whereas they would have been affordable at the time.

It would require home subsidies to African-Americans to purchase homes that are unaffordable today but would have been affordable had they not been unconstitutionally prohibited from purchasing them when they were built.

That’s just one example. Housing tax credits, rent subsidies — there's a wide range of policies that we can use at the federal, state and local levels to desegregate the country. They're not hard to conceive of. What's hard is developing the understanding that the racial boundaries in every city in the country, every metropolitan area of the country, are all a result of a civil rights violation.

How is the story we tell about segregation in the U.S., the narrative we’ve created, wrong?

Let me use the example of public housing. Most people think of public housing as a place where poor people live. That's not how public housing began in this country. Public housing began in the New Deal, during the Roosevelt administration in 1933, as a program for working-class families with stable employment histories. The federal government financed the construction but it didn’t pay for the housing.

The Public Works Administration created this housing for working-class families. The Depression had a 25 percent unemployment rate, but this housing was for the 75 percent who were employed.

And everywhere the federal government built this housing, it segregated it, creating segregated patterns frequently in communities that had previously been integrated. Urban neighborhoods in the mid- and early 20th century were much more integrated than we think. Even in the South. The water fountains and the lunch counters and the buses were segregated, but not neighborhoods, for the simple reason that since people didn't have automobiles to get to work, they had to live in roughly the same neighborhoods to be close enough to walk to work.

The great African-American novelist and playwright Langston Hughes described how in the early 20th century he grew up in an integrated Cleveland downtown neighborhood. We don't think of downtown Cleveland as being integrated today, but his best friend in high school was Polish; he dated a Jewish girl. This was his neighborhood.

It was the Public Works Administration that segregated housing in that neighborhood by demolishing existing housing to build two separate projects, one for blacks and one for whites, creating a pattern of segregation that otherwise never would have developed.

This happened in Atlanta and in Chicago and Detroit and across the country. The segregation that developed was created by federal policy that caused a pattern of segregation that otherwise hadn't existed and otherwise wouldn't exist.

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