In this post, Jennifer Berkshire interviews Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law.

She writes:

The gap between how much wealth Blacks and Whites have in the US is stark. If current trends continue, the median wealth of Blacks could fall to zero, even as wealthy Whites remain blissfully, even delusionally, unaware of the economic divide. But what is the source of the racial wealth gap, and how can we upend what is essentially a caste system in this country? AlterNet education editor Berkshire talks to Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, about the federal housing policies that segregated cities, neighborhoods and schools, dividing the economic prospects of Blacks and Whites in the process.

Rothstein blows up the myth that residential segregation is the product of millions of private choices. And he has little patience for arguments that school choice is the solution to cities and neighborhoods segregated by design. “We’re not going to solve this problem by choosing schools. We’re going to solve this problem by enforcing the neighborhood school concept in integrated neighborhoods.” Listen to the interview here.

The interview begins like this:

Jennifer Berkshire: The Color of Law takes aim at what you argue is a false narrative about the origins of residential segregation. Here’s your opportunity to set the record straight.

Richard Rothstein: I wrote this book in response to a national myth that the reason we have residential segregation in every metropolitan area in this country is the result of private activity. It’s the result of rogue real estate agents steering White families to White neighborhoods and Black families to Black neighborhoods. Or it’s the result of people wanting to live among same-race neighbors. Or it’s because of income differences and African-Americans are not able to afford to buy homes in White neighborhoods. Or it’s because of private individuals discriminating. It’s very hard to figure out what to do about the residential segregation that exists in every metropolitan area in this country if it’s the result of millions of accidental private decisions. But once we understand that residential segregation is the product of very explicit and intentional public policy, then it’s easier to understand that we can do something about it. If it was created by public policy it can be reversed by public policy.

JB: You lay out the history of a handful of federal housing policies that created the segregated cities and neighborhoods that remain with us today. In many ways the legacy of those policies comes down to a single word: equity.

RR: The Federal Housing Administration, which was created 1934, subsidized builders of large subdivisions, entire suburbs, with the explicit condition that no homes be sold African-Americans. The most famous of these is Levittown just east of New York City. William Levitt, the developer, could never have acquired the capital necessary to build all those homes on his own. He went to the Federal Housing Administration, which approved his plans on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans, and further, that deeds include a clause prohibiting resale to African-Americans. There were hundreds of places like Levittown around the country; all of California, suburbs in places like Lakewood south of Los Angeles or Panorama City. was developed in this way with Federal Housing Administration requirements that no African-Americans be admitted.

At the time those homes sold for about twice the national median income; they were affordable to working class families. Today they sell for $300,000, $400,000 or $500,000. The White families who moved into those homes in the mid-twentieth century gained over the course of the next two or three generations. Half million dollars in equity. Maybe a little bit less but a lot of equity the Black families who were required to live in rented apartments either in public housing or private housing in urban areas get no equity. The result is that today nationwide African-American incomes on average are about 60 percent of White incomes. But African-American wealth is only about seven percent of White wealth and that enormous disparity 60 percent income ratio a percent wealth ratio is entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy practice in the mid 20th century.

JB: The cities that appear in your book include not just Chicago or St. Louis, metropolitan areas that we’ve come to associate with, say, segregated public housing, bt places we consider progressive bastions, like San Francisco and Cambridge.

RR: I like to talk in the book about the places like San Francisco and Cambridge, which also had government-created segregation because I think that if people can understand that this happened in places that are considered the most liberal places in the country it must have happened everywhere. Richmond, CA across the bay from San Francisco was at the center of shipbuilding. Its population was less than 20000 at the beginning of World War II, and by the end of the war was 100,000 Clearly the shipyards couldn’t keep working if the government didn’t provide housing for these workers.

So government in this neighborhood that in this community that never known segregation and didn’t even have an African-American population to speak of before the war created separate housing for African-Americans and for Whites. The housing for African-Americans was located along the railroad tracks near the shipyards in the industrial area of Richmond. The housing for Whites was located in the residential area further inland. It’s not that Whites happen to pick those those units and Blacks happened to pick the units in the industrial area. This was explicitly designated. All over the country the government created segregation where if it existed before it existed in a much less rigid form or in places like Richmond where it never existed before.

You should listen. Richard Rothstein is brilliant, as usual.