The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

by | Sep 16, 2019 | Books

Segregation was a result of “open and explicit government-sponsored” policies.

In recent years we have heard a great deal of criticism regarding the economic and racial segregation of America’s cities. While much has been written on the subject, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein provides an illuminating explanation as to why this has occurred.

Much of the literature on economic and racial segregation places the blame on snobbish and racist individuals and businesses. While Rothstein acknowledges that some private racism has occurred, he shows that segregation was a result of “open and explicit government-sponsored” policies.

As one example, in the early twentieth century cities across the nation enacted zoning ordinances that were explicitly racist. In 1910, Baltimore passed an ordinance that prohibited blacks from buying homes in areas that were predominantly white and vice versa. Atlanta, Birmingham, Charleston, Dallas, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, and other cities quickly followed suit.

In 1917, The United States Supreme Court ruled that racial zoning was unconstitutional. Local governments soon found a way around the ruling—they would use zoning to mandate minimum lot sizes and prevent multi-family housing in predominantly white neighborhoods. Few blacks could afford the more extensive housing that resulted, but because these provisions were not explicitly racist, the courts let the measures stand.

While the zoning ordinances were local laws, the federal government also sponsored explicitly racist policies. In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt formed the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to insure home mortgages. However, the FHA explicitly refused to insure mortgages for black home buyers. Further, the FHA’s loan documents prohibited a home that it was insuring to be sold to blacks. After World War II, when the Veteran’s Administration began issuing low-interest loans for veterans, blacks were excluded.

Racist individuals have always existed and probably always will. But as private individuals, they cannot impose their irrationality upon others. They cannot force others to act on racist policies; only government can institute and mandate widespread racism. And that is precisely what happened.

That the government—the institution whose sole purpose is the protection of individual rights—would engage in such wholesale rights violations is a gross injustice. Contrary to Rothstein’s claims, the proper response to this injustice is not reparations (Rothstein uses the word “remedies”). Reparations would force those who did not instigate racist policies to pay those who were not direct victims of those policies. Reparations would be a further injustice, and it is a gross contradiction to combat injustice by committing an injustice.

The proper solution begins with acknowledging the rights-violating policies of past governments. And then, governments at every level must restore individual freedom by repealing those laws that prohibit individuals from freely producing and trading. This must include zoning, occupational licensing laws, and minimum wage laws.

Neither the affordable housing crisis nor the segregation of our cities occurred in a vacuum. Government policies, such as zoning, impede and stifle the production of housing. Pro-union laws, occupational licensing, and minimum wage laws impede the opportunity for individuals to improve their financial situation. Freedom, not more government programs, enables individuals to take responsibility for improving their own lives.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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