How the Feds Segregated America


Racism in our country today lies at the core of the appeal put out by the cynical Republican politicians now in power. They first connived with the neo-liberal Democrats to export well-paying unionized manufacturing jobs to cheap labor countries then used the anguish of those who lost their jobs to blame it on the Mexicans, and “immigrants,” like Muslims.  

In the article below Don Rose reviews a new book that gives the history of how our government participated over many years in establishing nonwhites as the ‘other’ in our society, thus preventing a closer living experience between the white citizenry and the dark citizenry. The result has been the degradation in living conditions for the dark skinned and the opportunity for politicians to claim this as “de facto” self-imposed segregation rather than ‘de jure,’ allowing cynical politicians and media to excuse all of their own policy failures on “the other.”  Trump and the demise of our civil society under the Constitution will be the price we pay for this misogynist government and societal racist policies. – b. traven

Don Rose

I want to depart briefly from the unreal world of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, etc. to talk about a new, virtually indispensable book that tells the full story of the federal role in creating and perpetuating America’s racial segregation. It’s called The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein (Liveright).

No less a liberal than John F. Kennedy, in an acclaimed speech, spoke of ending “both the de jure segregation of the South and the de facto segregation of the North.”  De jure means “by law”–the kind of blatant laws and ordinances the  South was known for, along with its “legally” segregated schools–while de facto segregation just sort of happened either through historical accident or personal choice of minorities who chose to live with each other. Kennedy was either unaware or could not admit that de facto segregation is an elaborate myth, brought about by an incremental conspiracy of federal, state and local laws–often enforced by the police.

Here in Chicago, I and others have demonstrated that we became the nation’s most segregated city through a series of actions by every instrumentality of local government conspiring with the real estate industry. Yes, we knew that the federal government pitched in back in the old days, but all but the wisest sociologists and urbanologists still deemed it “de facto.”

Now comes Rothstein, a fellow of the Economic Policy Institute, who has been a community organizer in Chicago, a union official and an education columnist for the New York Times, to call out the “de facto” lie and demonstrate that every major metropolitan area in the nation was segregated not only by local acts but by a century-long series of  federal laws and regulations.(Disclosure: in the ’70s Rothstein and I collaborated on a couple of articles.)

He begins by noting, “We think of the San Francisco Bay Area as one of the nation’s more liberal and inclusive regions. If the federal, state and local governments explicitly segregated the population into distinct black and white neighborhoods in the Bay Area, it’s a reasonable assumption that our government also segregated metropolitan regions elsewhere with at least as much determination.”

He then proceeds painstakingly to make his point on a city-by-city basis through the last century, citing everything from court cases to federal government regulations and maps explicitly showing where blacks can live or be denied housing loans. There are horrifying details, such as one edict requiring a wall be built between black and white neighborhoods. He shows local governments happily going along , citing numerous instances where blacks who moved into white neighborhoods were burnt out or routed out by mobs, with the local police standing by or arresting the victims, not the perpetrators.

He also illustrates how some federal  jobs were officially denied blacks and unions permitted to bar them from membership–even by theoretically liberal presidents and senators–thereby contributing mightily to impoverishing many black neighborhoods. Toward the end he even proposes the beginnings of difficult solutions.

I  implore anyone interested in understanding the depth of the problem to read Rothstein’s book.

This post originally appeared in the Chicago Daily Observer.

3 thoughts on “How the Feds Segregated America

  1. Thank you, Mr. Rose, for bringing this to our attention. Unfortunately my own reading “plate” is already more than overflowing. Two quick points on President Kennedy: 1.) He served in the Navy during World War II. The US military remained officially SEGREGATED until 1948 and thereafter, for a very long time, “de facto” segregation certainly continued in terms of job assignments, promotions, etc. [Think of how relatively recently America “discovered” that black guys could successfully quarterback football teams!]; 2.) given JFK’s privileged upbringing, one wonders if he interacted with ANY black folk during his formative years other than the Kennedy domestics, railroad porters, etc.

  2. Thank you for this.

    It reminds me of the first person who so clearly pointed out this de facto segregation to my smug, entitled, pretentious young self, even though I went to a nearly all white, middle class/wealthy high school in NJ, while a nearly all black poor/lower middle class high school was 20 minutes down the road.

    When I was in college in the early 90s in Boston, myself and other students were making a racket over how racist the South was, and how enlightened, decent and advanced we Northerners were, never mind that there were barely any people of color represented at my fancy expensive private college. It was my cross country coach who pointed out just how segregated Boston was; how you could make the argument that Boston was the most segregated place in America, with clearly delineated and well understood neighborhoods for each race and ethnicity. (I understand gentrification has over the last two decades significantly changed Boston’s neighborhoods, as it has most of the neighborhoods in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.) He also led me to look up this photo and learn this story, which in that bygone era I had to go and find in the library…Up until that time I had known busing, diversification and desegregation fights to have only occurred in the South, not in my good, noble and modernist North.

    What is clear to me looking back, as clear as the segregation was as soon as Coach Connie pointed it out, was that just as purposeful as the segregation was in its formulation and emplacement as a task of local, state and federal government, the hiding of such segregation, the denial of it, the obscuration of it and the creation of euphemisms or Orwellian language to mask it was also just as purposeful and necessary. For my age and cohort I was well read, well educated and was very involved in politics, current events, media, etc. However, just as Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, the racism that was inherent in the system was so implicit, so integral to the structure, that it simply couldn’t even be commented on or acknowledged without strenuous effort. Sort of like looking back at my life these last 44 years and not acknowledging each beat of my heart or expansion of my lungs. So even though I could read the civil rights histories and subscribe to the Southern Poverty Law Center newsletter as a teenager, go to an elite private liberal arts university, and count myself as a progressive, I could so blithely be ignorant of what was actually happening in the society, communities and government around me. And, to this day, I can’t pretend to be all that knowledgable.

    Thank you Don and Traven.


    • I participated in an action in Boston (action, singular, because I lived in NYC at the time!) in 1973 (if memory serves) to defend the bussed students against potential attack by racist mobs. Nothing materialized on that particular occasion. Keep your eyes and ears open for assaults on the very concept of affirmative action, or any other attempt to redress past grievances, from Team Trump. Indeed, now would be an excellent time for them to float another red herring as the uproar over “Loose Lips Donald” and his discussions of “national security” matters with foreign officials continues to crescendo!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s