The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America | Hillman Foundation

Hillman Prizes

2018 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism

Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein

Liveright/W.W. Norton

The Color of LawA leading authority on housing policy, Richard Rothstein explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through ‘de facto’ segregation – individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law brings to light incontrovertible evidence that it was the laws and policies passed by local, state, and federal governments that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.

Through extensive research and extraordinary revelations, Rothstein chronicles an untold story that begins in the 1920s, showing how this process of ‘de jure’ segregation began with explicit racial zoning, as millions of African Americans moved in the great historical migration from the south to the north. During the post–World War II years, when urban areas rapidly deteriorated and the great American suburbanization was spurred on by federal subsidies, builders developed neighborhoods like Long Island’s Levittown on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans. These standards, Rothstein shows, were then brutally upheld by police and prosecutors who supported violent resistance to black families moving into white neighborhoods.

As Jane Jacobs established in her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, flawed urban planning of the 1950s created many of the impoverished neighborhoods we know today. Now, Rothstein expands our understanding of this history, showing how government policies led to the creation of officially segregated public housing and the demolition of previously integrated neighborhoods. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited future discrimination in housing, but it did nothing to reverse residential patterns that had become deeply embedded.

Rothstein’s invaluable examination shows that relearning this history is a necessary step because it is the foundation for understanding that aggressive policies are in order to desegregate these urban areas and finally pave the way for the nation to remedy its unconstitutional past.

Richard Rothstein is a Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute, and a senior fellow (emeritus) at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In addition to his recent book, The Color of Law, he is the author of other articles and books on race and education, which can be found on his page at the Economic Policy Institute. Previous influential books include Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Improvement to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap, and Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right. He welcomes questions and comments at