51st Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: Richard Rothstein

Federal law has outlawed housing discrimination based on race since 1968, yet nearly all of America’s major population centers are still heavily segregated – why?

That question lies at the heart of Richard Rothstein’s work, particularly his book, The Color of Law, which was released to acclaim in 2017 and has recently surged on bestseller lists in the wake of protests following the death of George Floyd that have sparked a national conversation on racial justice.

Rothstein’s work is centered around debunking what he calls America’s “national myth”: the idea that ongoing segregation isn’t the fault of public policy, but rather other factors outside the control of government.

“It’s pervasive across the political spectrum. Liberals and conservatives hold it. Blacks and whites hold it,” Rothstein says. “The name of that myth is we have de facto segregation. Not something that was created by government like all the other segregations that we undid in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, but this is something that sort of just happened by accident.”

Rothstein argues that America’s largely white suburbs and largely Black urban centers are no accident at all and are a direct consequence of policy decisions, particularly those that enabled the growth of massive suburban developments with affordable homes open only to whites and, at the same time, neglected public housing just as well-paying manufacturing jobs fled the country’s cities – a confluence of factors that turned projects into “vertical slums.”

These policies resulted in many working-class white families owning homes ultimately worth far more than their original cost – a source of equity that provides for college tuition, covers emergency costs and, ultimately, is bequeathed to the next generation.

African Americans were denied all of this, Rothstein says, forced to live in areas without good jobs. Today, African Americans, on average, earn only 60 percent of what whites do, while possessing only 10 percent of the wealth of white families.

“That enormous disparity, between the 60 percent income ratio and the 10 percent wealth ratio, is entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy practiced in the mid 20th century that has never been remedied,” Rothstein says.

Rothstein will go into more detail on the lasting impact of housing policy at this year’s Annual Meeting. Attendees will have two opportunities to hear from Rothstein: His plenary remarks the morning of Thursday, November 12, and immediately afterward at a special Reactions & Reflections session. You can register for the Annual Meeting today at SECF.org!


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