It was not the unintended effect of benign policies

There was an exceptionally good interview on Fresh Air yesterday with Richard Rothstein, explaining the way ghettoization in the US was an official government policy, along with the fact that it fully accounts for the massive wealth gap – as distinct from income gap – between blacks and whites. Whites were able to buy cheap decent housing in the 40s and 50s while blacks were not, so that became the equity that is now the wealth that while people have while black people have 5% of that wealth. 5%.

5%. That’s a lot of university educations not paid for, houses not bought, equity not built.

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, has spent years studying the history of residential segregation in America.

“We have a myth today that the ghettos in metropolitan areas around the country are what the Supreme Court calls ‘de-facto’ — just the accident of the fact that people have not enough income to move into middle class neighborhoods or because real estate agents steered black and white families to different neighborhoods or because there was white flight,” Rothstein tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.

Or, at least, that it’s a mix of that and more deliberate causes. I think that’s what I thought. But whatever I thought, I did not know the scale of what Rothstein said.

“It was not the unintended effect of benign policies,” he says. “It was an explicit, racially purposeful policy that was pursued at all levels of government, and that’s the reason we have these ghettos today and we are reaping the fruits of those policies.”

They transcribed highlights.

On how the New Deal’s Public Works Administration led to the creation of segregated ghettos

Its policy was that public housing could be used only to house people of the same race as the neighborhood in which it was located, but, in fact, most of the public housing that was built in the early years was built in integrated neighborhoods, which they razed and then built segregated public housing in those neighborhoods. So public housing created racial segregation where none existed before. That was one of the chief policies.

That’s one. I did not know that. It’s so easy for me not to know it, isn’t it.

The second policy, which was probably even more effective in segregating metropolitan areas, was the Federal Housing Administration, which financed mass production builders of subdivisions starting in the ’30s and then going on to the ’40s and ’50s in which those mass production builders, places like Levittown [New York] for example, and Nassau County in New York and in every metropolitan area in the country, the Federal Housing Administration gave builders like Levitt concessionary loans through banks because they guaranteed loans at lower interest rates for banks that the developers could use to build these subdivisions on the condition that no homes in those subdivisions be sold to African-Americans.

And I did not know that. Holy shit. Daly City was another one, just south of San Francisco; all white, thank you very much. Those little houses in Levittown and Daly City? Worth a fortune now. Gee what a shame that African-Americans were never allowed to buy them when they were $10 k. Rothstein broke it down for us: at the time those houses were worth two years at an average wage. Now they’re worth seventy.

Another nice kicker? Rents were higher in black-segregated areas, because segregated housing was scarcer. Lose lose lose every way you turn.


  1. AMM says

    Ta-Nehisi Coates has been reporting on this for a while in his column over at

  2. John Horstman says

    AND in plenty of cases where Black people actually were able to create thriving neighborhoods and build equity in spite of the systemic efforts to the contrary, those neighborhoods were demolished for interstate construction. Racialized poverty isn’t JUST the legacy of slavery, though that’s part of it (slaver-capitalists and their descendents were able to generationally benefit from the value of both their own ancestors’ labor AND that of countless Black slaves, while eventually-emancipated Black people were left with nothing, and this makes reparations for slavery still very much a legitimate issue); it’s also a legacy of historical formal and ongoing effective apartheid policies. And, yeah, it’s been quite intentional the entire time. That’s a huge part of why White liberals decrying rioting and demanding nothing but nonviolent protest make me rage: White America has been at war with Black America since before there was an America, and still people insist that Black America needs to be utterly docile in response.

  3. iknklast says

    The town I’m living in had an ammunition base in WWII, with a lot of black sailors (who weren’t allowed to be on the ships, except in very limited numbers). The town passed several ordinances to make sure they couldn’t house them in the town; the feds actually did house them in places where the local citizens had declared they couldn’t be housed, but then they passed laws against allowing them in town. The excuse they used is that the black sailors got rowdy when they were drunk. Like white sailors never get rowdy when they’re drunk? Puleez! I spent my childhood as a navy brat – I know better.

    I wondered when I moved here why there is no black community in town, considering the large number of black workers that were here in WWII. After I learned this (and a few other things), I began to understand. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a town so thoroughly white, and I really don’t like it much.

  4. says

    That’s a huge part of why White liberals decrying rioting and demanding nothing but nonviolent protest make me rage: White America has been at war with Black America since before there was an America, and still people insist that Black America needs to be utterly docile in response.

    Rothstein repeatedly linked what he was talking about to Ferguson and Baltimore.

    I feel very ignorant for not having known all of this. I knew some of it, but nowhere near all.

  5. says

    dmcclean @ 4 – it was. In classic Terri Gross style, it was barely even an interview; she basically just gave him the mic to say what he knew. She can be admirably egoless that way.

  6. says

    Black people never owner their own homes, and are permanently stuck wasting money on rent?

    It sounds like a new form of sharecropping to me.

    Land speculators and the housing industry have made it even worse. Most people can’t even afford to buy land now, even if they wanted to or could get a loan and build a tiny home (under 500 sq. ft.) or put a trailer on it. And then there’s the construction industry buying municipal politicians. Some towns and cities are dictating house size minimums of 2000 sq. ft. or more, which sell for upwards of $500,000. How can anyone afford a McMansion when wages are going down?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *