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Raising Consciousness About The Color of Law

More than sixty years ago, when Ford Motor Company closed its Richmond, CA assembly plant, Frank Stevenson was among 250 African-Americans facing unemployment.

Fortunately, his union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), negotiated an agreement with management permitting all 1,400 UAW members in Richmond to transfer, with their seniority rights intact, to a Ford facility in Milpitas, a then-rural suburb of San Jose.

With the assistance of federal home mortgage guarantees, low-interest loans, and, for WW II veterans, no down payment, many white UAW members easily took advantage of this deal. They found affordable homes in suburban subdivisions then blossoming in the South Bay. However, Louisiana-born Stevenson and other non-white car builders had far greater difficulty following their work to Ford’s new plant, even though their employment history and level of earnings was similar.

That’s because Milpitas quickly enacted a zoning ordinance, which banned apartment construction and allowed only single-family homes to be built. The latter were off limits to blacks.  Because available housing was so limited, some black autoworkers had no choice but to give up their jobs. Others formed car-pools, so they could share the hundred-mile daily round trip down to Milpitas and back to Richmond, a commute that Frank Stevenson made for twenty long years.

Housing bias in the suburbs, like race-based segregation of renters and home-owners in post-war Richmond, was no accident, explains Richard Rothstein in his new book The Color of LawA Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (W.W. Norton, 2017). In it, he documents how racial segregation in housing did long-term damage to African-American family wealth, income, job opportunities, and access to good public education. The experience of Richmond Ford workers is one of many case studies of blacks being left behind in all these areas.

Rothstein, now a resident of nearby Berkeley, was a Students for a Democratic Society leader in the 1960s, later became an Urban League staffer and labor organizer, and then a well-known writer about educational policy issues and columnist for the New York Times. More recently his research for the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), in Washington, DC, and the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has focused on the discriminatory impact of past federal housing programs.

On Saturday, Jan. 20, Rothstein drew several hundred people to our city council chambers, for a discussion of how workers like Frank Stevenson were affected by segregation more de jure than de facto. As Rothstein reveals in his book, one of “the federal government’s specifications for mortgages insured in Milpitas was an openly stated prohibition on sales to African Americans.”  Throughout California, private developers dependent on federal loan insurance would not sell to non-whites–and no state-licensed real estate agent would even show them houses–anywhere that a “mixed-neighborhood” would result.

Even housing co-ops, committed to racial integration, were denied bank loans for new construction and mortgage assistance because “the Federal Housing Administration would not insure locals to a cooperative that included African-American members.”

It was only when Frank Stevenson was close to retirement, in 1975, that he was finally able to buy his first home, moving from North Richmond to a formerly whites-only section on the other side of the city. In the meantime, white co-workers—with job skills, experience, and union wages no different than his–had benefited, far longer, from the much greater appreciation in the value of their homes in Milpitas. The multi-generational impact of this economic disparity, multiplied hundreds of thousands times, was not mitigated by passage of national “fair housing” legislation in the late 1960s or court decisions eventually banning restrictive covenants.

The Richmond public schools attended by Stevenson’s three daughters were also “segregated primarily because federal and local housing policies had segregated the city itself.” Tracing the subsequent non-college careers, modest jobs and incomes of second and third generation Stevenson family members, Rothstein asks:

“What might have become of these Stevenson grandchildren if their parents had grown up and attended school in an integrated Milpitas?  How much further on the socioeconomic ladder would they have been able to climb….How different might their lives    have been were it not for the federal government’s unconstitutional determination to segregate their grandparents and their parents as well? What do we, the American community, owe this family, in this and future generations, for their loss of opportunity? How might we fulfill this obligation?”

The accumulated weight of evidence in Color of Law makes for painful reading, as several audience members confessed during a Q&A session with the author after his talk. Rothstein’s older questioners included speakers who personally experienced block-busting tactics by realtors and resulting white flight, the contraction of the black business community in inner cities, and the demographic shift in U.S. public housing from “working class families that were not poor” to its present-day population of much lower-income, far more disadvantaged, and almost entirely non-white residents. The bottom line today, as Rothstein noted, is an enormous disparity in wealth and income, between blacks and whites, largely attributable to the factor of home-ownership (and where, when or whether it existed at all).

One audience member, an African-American women, suggested–like the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates—that financial “reparations” were the only just solution; a later white speaker dismissed this idea as too divisive and impractical. In his book and Richmond appearance, Rothstein emphasized the need for “make whole remedies” that “also include policies that do not involve payments.” What’s most important at the moment, he argues, is arousing in Americans “an understanding of how we created a system of unconstitutional, state-sponsored segregation.” Without a “sense of outrage about that, neither remedies nor reparations will be on the public agenda,” he predicts.

Not long ago, Rothstein and his colleagues at EPI had high hopes for what a Hillary Clinton administration was going to accomplish in the area of housing. Those expectations crashed and burned on November 8, 2016. And, now one year into the Trump era, even existing federal tax incentives and subsidies for low- and moderate-income housing, built by private developers, have been sharply curtailed. The result, proclaims the New York Times on its front page Jan. 19 is that “affordable rents may take a hit…” Republican-crafted tax code changes “will reduce the growth of subsidized affordable housing by 235,000 units over the next decade, compounding an existing shortage.” Amid this looming “undersupply” of affordable housing, developers are building, instead, for buyers of condos in “the pricey glass and steel buildings that have sprouted in downtowns across the country.”

In Richmond, Rothstein reminded his audience that “there won’t be any improvement in government action [on housing] until you create the necessary political base,” something that would have been true even under Clinton, he acknowledged. “Residential segregation is the underlying cause of most of the country’s social and economic problems,” he insisted. But, without developing “a wider understanding of history” and “a new consensus on remedial policies,” the latter will remain “politically unfeasible,” regardless of who controls the White House and Congress.

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Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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