Author will visit Jones Middle School on Wednesday to speak about his groundbreaking book, 'The Color of Law'

When Richard Rothstein finished writing The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, he set out looking for a publisher, but all of the literary agents told him the same thing.

“They said we were in a post-racial society: ‘Nobody's interested in this stuff anymore. Barack Obama is president. Let's move on,’” Rothstein said recently by phone. “This was not a book that they were interested in.”

But everything changed in the summer of 2014, when protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. “We suddenly started talking about race again in this country,” said Rothstein, who published an article that fall titled “The Making of Ferguson” for the Economic Policy Institute, where he is a Distinguished Fellow. “I drew on a lot of research that I had done for the book, and that got very widely circulated online. … It changed agents' attitude towards whether this was a viable book.”

In the article and in The Color of Law, which came out in 2017, Rothstein argues that the segregation of America is not due merely to private prejudices, commonly referred to as de facto segregation. Rather, the racial segregation of our country came about because of the explicit intent of federal, state and local governments, i.e. de jure segregation.

“Before I did this research, I, like everybody else, talked about de facto segregation — something that was the result of private bigotry and people's desire to live with others of the same race and economic differences. That, as I argue in the book, is a complete myth. It's a rationalization we use to ignore the fact that our racial boundaries are an unconstitutional creation of government,” Rothstein said. “I had an inkling about this, but the more research I did, the more astounded I was at the extent of the government’s promotion and control and requirement of racial segregation.”

In the book’s subtitle, Rothstein refers to these policies as “forgotten” history, but they're not hidden. In The Color of Law, the author uses well-established facts to back up his compelling argument. “I'm not a professional historian,” he said, “but no professional historian has challenged a single fact in this book.”

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Rothstein will speak about the book at Jones Middle School on Wednesday, March 4, as part of the Upper Arlington Historical Society’s “History Speaks 2020” series, co-presented with Gramercy Books. “When I speak to audiences in the Midwest, like what I expect will happen in Upper Arlington, they are the most shocked by it. … Their first reaction is, ‘I didn't know that this was going on in my community. I thought it was just in the South,’” Rothstein said. “But that makes them the most receptive.”

The most common question Rothstein gets at these events is some form of, “What can we do about it?” The question has come up so much, in fact, that Rothstein has made it the topic of his next book.

“The policies to redress segregation are well-known. There's no mystery about what we need to do or how to do it. What's missing is the political will to do it,” he said. “We need a new civil rights movement that's going to make it uncomfortable not to implement some of these policies."

For starters, in addition to abolishing exclusionary zoning laws (particularly in the suburbs), the government should be “subsidizing African Americans to purchase homes in communities that are now unaffordable to them, but that would have been affordable to them when whites were subsidized to move into them and African Americans were excluded,” he said. “There are various presidential candidates who are proposing something like that, but it's all fantasy. There's no political support for that. And in fact, the Democratic Party, which many people think could be the vehicle for enacting these policies, is probably the biggest problem, because the Democratic Party is now a coalition of minorities and suburbanites, and the suburbs are the biggest resistance to taking steps to desegregate the landscape. ... Liberals are all for addressing racial equality, except in their own neighborhoods."

Rothstein also argues that the implementation of federal affordable housing programs such as Section 8 housing vouchers and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits merely reinforce racial segregation.

Despite all of that, Rothstein is hopeful — very hopeful, in fact.

“The time to be hopeless is when everybody thought we were in a post-racial society and we didn’t need to do anything about this. We're now having more accurate and passionate discussions about racial inequality in this country. ... When has reparations been a mainstream topic of conversation?" he said. "The fact that we're talking about remedies ... is an enormous step forward. [But] it’s the first step. It can't be the last. Once you understand the obligation to do something about it, taking the next step is essential.”