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Richard Rothstein: A forgotten history of racial inequality in the United States

Moments before Richard Rothstein entered the space, a sustained murmur made by an eager audience comprised of Mills students and community members hung in the Student Union as they hunted for more chairs in the already crowded, wood-paneled room in Rothwell Center on Nov. 1. 

The crowd went silent and listened attentively as Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and of the Haas Institute at the University of California Berkeley began. His talk outlined what has led today’s wealth and educational inequality between Blacks and whites in the US. The discussion centered around Rothstein’s latest book ‘The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America.”

Rothstein says that while we are currently living in one of the most racially segregated times, this is not of our volition as a nation.  

“The myth of de facto segregation is the primary cause of our not doing anything about it,” Rothstein said.

The “forgotten history” he speaks of is that of government imposed segregation of races or “de jure segregation.” 

“It wasn’t hidden,” Rothstein said. “Everyone knew what was going on.” 

One middle-aged woman in the audience gasped with astonishment as Rothstein shined a spotlight on segregation on her Bay Area home which by most accounts is considered a hub of  “liberalism and inclusivity.”

However, during WWII when an inflow of both Black and white workers came to the bay, primarily to Richmond, to work on war crafts, the government set up segregated public housing for 24,000 incoming workers. Shoddily made, temporary structures were erected next to railroad tracks as Black housing while houses built closer to already existing suburbs were set aside for white families.

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Rothstein insists that this is the crux of racial boundary lines which persist in Richmond even today. Primarily because when building more permanent housing and more suburbs, the tracts were eventually sold off to white families. The federal government approved bank loans for construction of these homes so long as developers denied purchasing power to African American families who continued to reside in ramshackle housing with few other options well into the early 1950s.

To bring into focus what this means for America today, Rothstein explained that during the 1940s and 1950s when public housing and the Federal Housing Administration made subsidies available for white families, African Americans were unable to buy homes that would eventually gain equity. Whites in some areas accrued as much as 200 percent to 300 percent on homes purchases through hefty government subsidies while African Americans gained nothing. Rothstein uses the small municipality of Levittown NY, as an example of the disparity that continues today.

“Today African Americans make 60 percent of the total income,” Rothstein said. “However, African American wealth is 10 percent of whites. This is entirely attributable to unfair housing policy of the 20th Century.”

Maggie Hunter, head of the sociology department believes that the inequities of racial isolation lie not only in wealth accumulation but also in education, healthcare, workplace and politics believes that the inequities of racial isolation lie not only in wealth accumulation but also in education, healthcare, workplace and politics.

“It matters because of outcomes,” Hunter said. “Racial inequality in varying sorts remains a linchpin of all inequality.”

Mills College President Beth Hillman invited Rothstein to campus to speak in her Civil Rights course after doing an extensive search for recent civil rights history that maps the climate of racial equity today. 

 “I realized he had framed a very important issue in regard to race. His work proves economic and political resources haven’t been allocated unfairly,” Hillman said. “We make assumptions based on race. But some groups are underrepresented in corridors of power. The fascinating thing is that everyone knew and that we have forgotten. We’ve culturally accepted that we decided to self-segregate.” 

Drafting public policy is admittedly not Rothstein’s area of expertise, but he offers solutions to the chasm of disparity that exists today.

“If we understand that this was a government implemented problem that is unconstitutional, we understand we have an obligation. We have to have a broader conversation about this history,” Rothstein said. “The textbooks lie or don’t mention this unchallenged history. We have to do something about how this is taught in schools to have a basis for discussion.”

One student, a Mills undergrad, responded emotionally to a history seemingly not forgotten by all.

“Who is the ‘we’ you are referring to,” the student said. “Forgotten History? Communities of color live this existence!”

The audience in unison turned from the frustrated student back to Rothstein to hear a clarification of his proposal for more education and discussion on the historical imbalance.

“African American people more so than whites know this experience. But very few people remember this history. Because people live this doesn’t mean that they know about government implemented policy,” Rothstein said. “‘We’ is everyone Black and white. It’s going to take activism and discussion.”

Rothstein is one in a series of weekly speakers from the community that will address students in the class taught by President Hillman.