Book Talk Series: The Color of Law

Read with us!

Our staff is reading Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law from now until November, and we invite you to join us. As you read each chapter, visit this page periodically to find updates to our reading guide of reflections questions, takeaways from Habitat Chicago staff members, and additional resources and activities to deepen your learning.

 

Reading guide

Click chapter title to see more details.

Guiding Questions 

  • Textbooks used in middle and high schools typically don’t describe our government’s role in creating residential segregation. Who gains from this? What can be done to ensure that this history is taught? Is there something you can do in your own community? 

  • What social, health, and environmental impacts do you think occurred as a result of enforced segregation?

  • How does the information from this first chapter fit in with the narrative you were taught in school? What is the difference? 

     

Takeaways 

Federal, state, and local governments were primarily responsible for the racial gap in homeownership and for the racially segregated neighborhoods in Chicago. While the government encouraged affordable homeownership for White defense workers during wartime, it rejected this opportunity for African Americans, who were then forced into public housing. 

 

This chapter was a great summary of the purposeful, racist segregation that caused the disenfranchisement of African Americans we see today. These practices are precisely why organizations like Habitat Chicago exist and a powerful and sobering reminder of how we got to the housing crisis we are experiencing now.

 

Connection/Extension 

 

Authored by Kelsey Miklos, Events Manager and Misia Krasowski, Homeownership Programs Specialist

Guiding Questions 

  • What government decisions, regarding public housing, impacted Chicago and how? How do those decisions affect how you view and interact with the city?

  • Due to the many decisions highlighted in this chapter and bias found in the media, public housing carries a strong reputation. What narrative did you have about public housing before reading this chapter and how can you rewrite it based on what you’ve learned?

  • Many opportunities of integration in public housing were compromised due to government decisions, leading to segregated communities that are now very difficult to reverse. What public housing opportunities might the future hold to promote integrated living?

     

Takeaways 

It was very informative to learn about public housing’s role in the greater picture of our nation’s segregated history, especially in Chicago. It provided insight into why Chicago’s South and West Sides are predominantly Black, why there is still a large need for affordable housing and other resources, and why organizations like Habitat Chicago exist. 

 

Supporting folks on their homeownership and wealth-building journey - something that was much harder to do due to government decisions outlined in this book - is something that motivates me to do my work, but this chapter made me wonder how our organization can further promote integration while having a neighborhood-focused approach.

 

Connection/Extension 

 

Authored by Courtney Wong, Digital Marketing Specialist

Guiding Questions 

  • How did local policies regarding zoning for single-family home construction exacerbate the patterns of housing segregation in communities in the U.S.?

  • How did professional planning organizations aid in enforcing policies of racial discrimination?

  • Beyond the exclusion of African Americans from homeownership, what are some of the other impacts of exclusionary zoning that African American communities have had to navigate?

     

Takeaways 

This chapter brought to light the myriad of ways that local and federal government branches manufactured pathways that systematically exclude African Americans from being able to purchase homes in their local communities. 

 

Habitat Chicago is seeking to address these long-standing issues by advocating for and providing new pathways of homeownership for African Americans in Chicago. The neighborhoods where we focus our efforts are resilient, having had to navigate decades of inequitable policy and investment, while trying to build a life for their families. 

 

This is what motivates me in my work, trying to make my contribution alongside other residents on the South and West Sides of Chicago, in championing healthy neighborhood stability and development that makes for a healthier Chicago.

 

Connection/Extension 

 

Authored by Stephen Readus, Neighborhood Engagement Manager

Guiding Questions 

  • How did the federal government and private industry come together to create a system of residential segregation?

  • In what ways did the Federal Housing Authority make it virtually impossible for White individuals to try to increase integration?

  • How did the Federal Housing Authority’s policies not only prevent African American homeownership, but also contribute to disparate educational outcomes for African-Americans? In addition to the homeownership gap, what are the other economic and social effects of these policies?

     

Takeaways 

This chapter highlighted the need for reforming the appraisal system. Habitat Chicago is unique in that it seeks to maintain affordability while supporting the increase of property values in our focus neighborhoods, but to make an impact on the neighborhood or city level, we should advocate for appraisal policy and procedure changes. If properties are continued to be valued by comparisons to nearby properties, then we won’t be able to rewrite the systemic undervaluation of properties that took place for decades.

 

Connection/Extension 

 

Authored by Misia Krasowski, Homeownership Programs Specialist 

Guiding Questions 

  • What are racially restrictive covenants, and how were they deemed legal in light of the Supreme Court’s 1917 Buchanan decision?

  • How did the FHA and eventually the VA skirt federal court rulings against segregation in insuring mortgage loans?

  • In 1947, half of Chicago’s non-African American residential areas banned home sales and rentals to African Americans by way of deed restrictions. Reflecting on where you live in Chicago, do you think your neighborhood would look different if these racial covenants had not existed? Why or why not?

     

Takeaways 

“Assure a homogenous and harmonious neighborhood”—the 1936 Federal Housing Authority (FHA) appraisers manual used these terms to describe why racial restrictions in property deeds and neighborhood associations were necessary. Unfortunately, many people—especially majority groups—still associate “homogenous” with “harmonious,” and I feel it is part of our responsibility at Habitat Chicago to show and live out why integration and diversity are essential to an ever-learning, people-centered, “harmonious” existence.

 

Connection/Extension 

  • Read the Supreme Court decision referenced in this chapter: Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)

  • Watch ABC 7 feature about new Illinois law allows homeowners to remove racist language from home deeds

  • Check your house deed or homeowners association agreements to see if any racial covenants remain buried with your documents. These ugly remnants of history still exist far more often than one may think.

 

Authored by Rachel Hardy, Marketing and Communications Manager

Guiding Questions 

  • The FHA policies and implementation which has often been excluded from most history books. How do you feel about learning a new history – whether Black or White? Describe your feelings and initial reaction. Do you accept this chapter as accurate? Why or why not?

  • Was blockbusting or white flight something you have witnessed? If so, what did you think was the cause at that time?

     

Takeaways 

This chapter describes how “white flight” from neighborhoods was accelerated by the actions of real estate agents and firms. It also outlines the catastrophic damage done to African American families through the policies created by the FHA. Habitat’s work in facilitating homeownership to those who have been historically excluded from homeownership is but one way to right this wrong.

 

Connection/Extension 

 

Authored by Hallie Rosen, Volunteer Programs Manager

Guiding Questions 

  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has rarely acted on its obligation to withhold tax exemptions from organizations that promote prejudice and discrimination. How were Black families in Chicago impacted by this lack of oversight, and how would racial segregation in our neighborhoods look today if not for this passivity of the IRS to confront its tax-exemption policy?

  • What roles did insurance companies and private banks and thrifts have in racial residential segregation? How did federal and state regulators endorse their discriminatory activities?

  • How did compliance regulators contribute to “reverse redlining”? What effects did the racially targeting of subprime lending have on Black homeownership rates and how are we seeing these consequences play out today?

     

Takeaways 

This chapter helped me learn more of the root causes of residential segregation in our country’s history. The consequences of the failures of our government agencies, from the IRS to the FDIC, have been largely hidden in plain sight but are still having enormous consequences for Black Americans and Black families, including here in Chicago. 

 

Habitat for Humanity is just one of the many organizations fighting for equitable homeownership in our city and our nation. Understanding our history and how we got to where we are today is vital for determining what policies and programs we should embark on to properly right the wrongs of the past.

 

Connection/Extension 

  • Read Race for Profit by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. The book explores exploitative real estate practices and homeownership policies resulting from relationships between regulators and the industry.

  • Watch "Racial Wealth Gap", an episode of the Netflix documentary series Explained produced by Vox Media. The video addresses the wealth gap among races and its causes, including issues addressed in this chapter, such as reverse redlining.

  • Read Racial Justice in Housing Finance: A Series on New Directions by the Poverty & Race Action Research Council. This series of essays by housing experts explores the root causes of housing finance in racial residential segregation and how our current regulatory structure can better advance residential integration and equity.

 

Authored by Nick Farrar, Donor Database Specialist

Guiding Questions 

  • Through many different examples in this chapter, what kinds of local groups had the power to block simple efforts of integration or the possibility of integration at all?

  • How did highway construction in the late 1930s play a role in de jure segregation? Who was displaced by the creation of highways near you, and what did those neighborhoods look like before?

  • What role did schools play in integration prevention efforts? Segregation has many impacts, but what kind of impact might that have on a child in a school setting?

     

Takeaways 

We see how “petty” and how much “extraordinary creativity” smaller government officials used to enforce segregation. From urban renewal programs to school segregation, the examples in this chapter plays out in Chicago. Learning about this local history is helpful to understand the context and why there’s a need for affordable housing and for organizations, like Habitat Chicago, to exist.

 

Connection/Extension 

 

Authored by Courtney Wong, Digital Marketing Specialist

 

Why The Color of Law?

As part of our Race + Housing Series, Habitat Chicago staff has committed to learning about how our work is impacted by the history and current implications of systemic racism and racial segregation in Chicago. The Color of Law provides a thorough account of local, state and national housing policies that intentionally segregated cities across the country. 

 

Chicago is unfortunately one of the most notorious examples of these efforts. To name just a few examples: neighborhoods with predominantly black and brown populations (predominantly on the South and West sides) were systemically denied access to Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans, public housing was intentionally segregated by race, and multiple white suburbs engaged in tactics to avoid the development of low-income housing. 

 

Our focus neighborhoods of Austin, Greater Grand Crossing and West Pullman, predominantly African American neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago, are deeply impacted by this history. We must continue to grow our understanding of segregation’s impact on the current landscape of Chicago, so that we can continue to improve housing solutions in partnership with these neighborhoods.

 

About the author

Richard Rothstein is a Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and an Emeritus Senior Fellow of the Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He lives in California, where he is a Senior Fellow at the Haas Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the author of many other articles and books on race and education, which can be found on his webpage at the Economic Policy Institute.

 

 

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