“Color of Law” author talks modern segregation at UMD

By Maria Trovato

Richard Rothstein, author and distinguished fellow at the University of California, Berkeley came to the University of Maryland to speak about enduring segregation in America to a group of about 350 people on May 2.

The talk was in light of Rothstein’s recent book, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” which came out in May of 2017.

Rothstein began his talk by pointing out that while racial segregation has been eliminated in many aspects, segregation in housing and education still very much exists. He says this is because we are not looking at the real issue.

“We have adopted a national myth, a rationalization to excuse ourselves from inaction, and that national myth is called de facto segregation. We say that the segregation of neighborhoods all over the country is different than the other segregations we have abolished, because it was not created by government,” Rothstein said. “We can no longer get away with this myth, and with excuses instead of action.”

Rothstein dispelled the myth by detailing the long history of the governmental policies mandating racially segregated housing, and as a result, segregation in school districts. He discussed how the government continues to maintain this segregation today, and how this segregation leads to increased wealth for white families while pushing black families into poverty.

“African-American income on average nationwide is 60 percent of white income. African-American wealth is 10 percent of white wealth,” he said. “That enormous disparity between these ratios is entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy that we have never remedied because we have convinced ourselves that it didn’t happen.”

Rothstein offered many possible ways to attack this segregation, such as locating public housing in areas with economic opportunities or incentivizing racially integrated neighborhoods. However, in order to do this, we must acknowledge and teach the history of these racist policies, he said.

Rothstein found that in the most commonly used U.S. history textbook in America, there was only one sentence acknowledging racial segregation in housing policy.

“This is a crime, because if the next generation doesn’t learn about this history better than my generation or your generation, they’re going to be a poor position to remedy it,” Rothstein said. “There are many policies that we could follow to desegregate this country. They are all politically inconceivable at this point because there is so little understanding of this history.”

The best thing that any one person can do is spread awareness and start a conversation about this, he said.

“We need to make this an issue,” Rothstein said. “If we understand this history, we understand that we have a constitutional obligation to remedy violations of civil rights that our government has created.”

Shakia Asamoah, a first-year Master’s student in education policy, said she was drawn to the event by Rothstein’s candor on the subject.

“I really wanted to hear him talk because he pushes the bar a little on how we talk about segregation and how it actually ends up impacting the students that I care about,” Asamoah said. “We usually just talk about the de facto segregation, so it was refreshing to look at the issue with a good historical context and how those issues are still playing out today.”

The event was organized by the Maryland Equity Project, The College of Education, and The Urban Studies and Planning Program at the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Professor Ariel Bierbaum, an assistant professor of Urban Studies and Planning and the main organizer of the event, discussed why these different groups worked together to talk about modern racial segregation and host this event.

“The problem is so difficult and multifaceted that we can’t solve it without looking at it from a multidisciplinary perspective. Some of the things that Richard puts out there are provocative and not everyone is going to agree with them.” Bierbaum said. “The empirical evidence that he has garnered to make those arguments is a really important starting point.”


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