By Jackie Budko
Richard Rothstein gave a brief history on how policies enacted in the New Deal era created segregation in urban communities that “never would have happened without government intervention” during the 50th anniversary of the Maryland Architecture, Planning and Preservation Lecture Series.
The May 2 event was named after his latest book, “The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How the Government Segregated America.”
Rothstein, who said he spent the last three decades studying economic policy, also attributes de facto segregation (segregation that happens as a “fact”) as a cause for the present state of America’s educational system and continued institutional segregation.
“This is the most segregated our schools have been since I started studying educational policy,” Rothstein said.
He said “white flight,” the theory that white families left cities for suburban America, and the racial pay gap can also be linked to de facto segregation, but maintained his stance that governmental institutions are the primary reason for segregation, especially in schools.
The most consistent finding from his research is that “children who came from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds couldn’t be expected to move up the same as middle class children.” He said this is also referred to as “the achievement gap.”
Rothstein said two government actions are directly responsible for the achievement gap and institutional segregation: the Housing Act of 1949 and the approval of building Levittowns.
After the approval of more public housing to provide more homes for World War II veterans through the New Deal policies, Rothstein said that one of the requirements was to keep the housing segregated.
Over time, African-American public housing had long waiting lists, while white public housing had more than half of their units vacant. The public housing program stayed segregated well into the 1960s until the peak of the civil rights movement.
In the 1950s, Rothstein said several factors led to suburbanization. Eisenhower commissioned the building of highways across the nation, leading industries to move their headquarters outside of the city limits.
Workers followed suit, leading to the need for a mass amount of working-class housing. Bill Levitt took advantage of the situation, building 17,000 homes outside of New York City. To receive funding to build these homes, he requested a loan from the federal government. As a part of their agreement, Levitt could not sell any of his homes to African-Americans.
Levitt and his siblings ended up “manufacturing” several Levittowns during the 20th century, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Puerto Rico, according to The Guardian.
Rothstein said we as Americans all have a moral obligation to the United States to learn from the mistakes we made as an institution in the past, and to correct them.
“If the next generation doesn’t learn this history better than us,” Rothstein said, “they are going to make the same mistakes over again. We all know people in public schools and how this history is being mistaught, let’s make a difference.”
Doctoral student in the College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership Jason Saltmarsh said he is going to take what he learned from the lecture and apply it to his studies.
“I thought the lecture was compelling and socially responsible, I’ve read Rothstein’s books in the past and knew thought they were evidence-based and something we can all learn from,” Saltmarsh said.
The dean of the College of Education, Dr. Jennifer King Rice, said the lecture series was a part of their “deep longstanding commitment to social justice, equality and impact in the community.”
‘The Color of Law” is Rothstein’s 11th book. He is a former columnist for The New York Times and a fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He is also a fellow of the Haas Institute at the University of California-Berkeley.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Color of Law’s Facebook page.
Jackie Budko is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.