The Color of Law: Author talks about racism in the law and America’s public policy history

After a year of protesting racial inequities, author Richard Rothstein thinks America may be ready to face the systemic racism that made the deaths of people like George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin—all with racial undercurrents—more likely to happen.


On Friday, Nov. 20 Rothstein reviewed the lessons from his national bestselling book “The Color of Law on a webinar hosted by Cuyahoga Community College. In “The Color of Law: Race, Racism and Public Policy in America,” Rothstein talked about a missing chapter in American history where the government implemented race-based policies.


Those in charge of the U.S. government in the 20th Century knowingly made funding available for white-only communities and, in the process, locked in generations of poverty and other gaps between white and black communities, Rothstein discovered in writing the book.


Richard RothsteinA researcher for the Economic Policy Institute and a fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Rothstein has written that missing chapter in U.S. history and offers the curriculum, free of charge. to any school that wants to teach it.


The curriculum includes the story of the U.S. government building segregated public housing in the 1930s within integrated neighborhoods—like Cleveland's Central neighborhood—where, Rothstein points out, poet and activist Langston Hughes was raised ("he had a Polish best friend and a Jewish girlfriend").


After segregating middle class workers by race, the Federal government's Urban Renewal program demolished many of the homes in integrated neighborhoods.


After World War II, the Federal Housing Administration made loans to expand the suburbs. In the process, it created a manual that made clear to developers that any project selling a home to a Black family would not receive the federal subsidy. Banks used the manual and government “redlining maps” to funnel development loans into neighborhoods that only sold to white families, Rothstein says, baking in generations of segregation and economic opportunity to whites.


Once banks stopped investing in predominantly Black neighborhoods, housing conditions worsened. Asthma and lead poisoning rates started to climb—multiple studies have shown how these ailments impact childhood development and student achievement.


“America is an apartheid state,” Rothstein said in his presentation. “The wealth gap [between Blacks and whites] is entirely attributed to housing policy of the mid-20th century."


Systemic racism is traceable to American government in the 20th century, and so are its remedies, Rothstein insists.


“The Federal government should be buying up homes, refurbishing them and selling them to lower incomes families at a deeply subsidized rate,” he said.


Rothstein said he would also like to see Federal housing loans like the Low Income Tax Credit (LITC) expanded to the suburbs.


Abolishing some forms of discrimination in government, such as zoning, are harder to do, Rothstein admits. Zoning in many suburbs prevents multi-family homes from being built, making it harder for working-class families to move up.


The remedy may be inclusionary zoning, with subsidies for affordable housing.


Systemic racism also helps explain the “achievement gap” between Cleveland and its suburban schools. Teaching the missing chapter to white students is a small remedy, Rothstein said.


“What's missing is not a policy, but a new Civil Rights movement,” he said. “To make it uncomfortable for following the old status quo.”


In response to these concerns, Tri-C's Stand for Racial Justice Alliance announced an essay contest exploring the question, “What is racism, and what should we do about it?” The contest is open to high school students in a seven-county area.


Cash prizes will be awarded to winners in both a junior/senior category and a freshman/sophomore category. The prizes are $1,000 for first place; $500 for second place; and $250 for third place.


Additionally, authors of the top five senior/junior submissions will be guaranteed entry into Tri-C’s Mandel Scholars Academy if they enroll at Tri-C. Admission into the academy includes a scholarship valued at more than $10,000.


Deadline for entries is Friday, Dec. 18. Winners will be announced in January as part of Martin Luther King Jr. Day observances. Essay contest applications can be found here.

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.