• Alyssa Barton

Housing Policy and Environmental Racism: Book Notes From "The Color of Law"

Updated: May 18, 2019


Rothstein, Richard. (2017) The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Liveright Publishing Corporation: New York, NY.


Author's note:

For ease of reference I refer to the category of blogs I post on Wednesdays, intended as unpretentiously as possible, as “Save the World Wednesday” blogs. These cover environmental and social change issues. By reviewing Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law, this is the first time I’m tackling a social justice issue in the blog.

Because social justice is a new topic for the blog – and because the ties between social justice and environmentalism weren’t always as clear to me as they are now - I feel compelled to give a little bit of a background for those readers that might not immediately get the connection between environmentalism and racist housing policies (the topic of The Color of Law).

If you care about the environment, you need to care about social justice.

What is social justice again? The Pachamama Alliance defines social justice as equal access to wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. (Aka, equal access by all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, sex, disability/ability, etc). Meaning, what we don’t have right now.

Historically, environmentalists have ignored social justice issues for the most part.

The broader US environmental movement still consists of primarily white upper-income folks. Since these are the people that have historically taken the driver’s seat fighting for environmental protections, these are the people that both shape and benefit from environmental policies and outcomes. Read: the environmental movement was focused on protecting the environment for the sake of rich white folks, while ignoring the rest of folks, including the people most impacted by environmental exploitation and pollution.

It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the terms “environmental racism” and “environmental justice” were even conceived, slowly pricking the ears of environmentalists and historically white lead environmental organizations.

What is environmental racism? The Oxford dictionary says its: “Racial discrimination in the development and implementation of environmental policy, especially as manifested in the concentration of hazardous waste disposal sites in or near areas with a relatively large ethnic minority population.” Air pollution, water pollution (think Flint, Michigan), trash dumps, toxic waste sites, power plants and incinerators, industrial facilities, hurricanes (think Katrina), droughts, and climate change – all of these environmental threats and harms are more likely to be sited in or more negatively impact low income communities and in particular, people of color. This is environmental racism. This is reality.

In the 1980’s, two seminal documents were published exposing the link between race and environmental pollution. The first was a report by the US General Accounting Office (GAO; now the US Government Accountability Office), published in 1984: “Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities.” The second report, published in 1987 by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, was titled “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.” The United Church report demonstrated that race was “The single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited in the United States.”

Mounting evidence has developed around the connection between environmental issues and racial and socio-economic justice issues, and awareness of the intersection between these areas is growing.

The environmental justice movement grew out of our increased understanding of and desire to address environmental racism. What is environmental justice? Per the EPA: “environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys:

  • the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and

  • equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

Here’s an awesome additional resource about environmental justice by National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), that can really help you visualize this issue.


Environmental justice matters. In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein demonstrates the ugly truth that America was intentionally segregated by racist policies implemented from the top down after the Civil War. “Residential integration declined steadily from 1880 to the mid-twentieth century, and it has mostly stalled since then.” (P. 39). The federal government set racially discriminatory policies across sectors, and segregation in US housing was further perpetuated by state and local policies. These practices, the author argues, were unconstitutional.

Rothstein provides examples across the decades of race-based public housing projects that forced segregation; the intentional creation of multi-family urban “ghettos” by government and private interests; local racial zoning practices (i.e. redlining); unfair mortgage lending that disadvantaged African Americans (higher interest rates and stricter penalties for African Americans); race based federal funding and insurance for development projects; restrictive covenants used to exclude African Americans from purchasing homes in white neighborhoods; and unfair real estate practices like blockbusting that targeted people of color.[1]

The following are a few of tidbits I selected from the book to give a picture of its whole. I was not aware of the depth and extent of the racism in US housing policy prior to reading Rothstein’s book – I hope these notes at least spark some interest in others who might not be familiar with this topic but wish to learn more.

Public Housing Policy in the U.S. Forced Segregation

When Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912, progress of African Americans in civil service came to a halt. “In 1913, Wilson and his cabinet approved the implementation of segregation in government offices.” (P. 43).

“The federal government first developed housing for civilians – living quarters on military bases had long been in existence – during World War I, when it built residences for defense workers near naval shipyards and munitions plants. Eighty-three projects in twenty-six states house 170,000 white workers and their families. African Americans were excluded, even from projects in northern and western industrial centers where they worked in significant numbers. Federal policy sometimes imposed racial segregation where it hadn’t previously been established, forcing African Americans into overpopulated slums.” (P. 18).

In the 1930’s, FDR’s “New Deal” created public housing programs that forced segregation through construction, employment, and job agency practices and policies. Rothstein documents how these policies resulted in housing shortages that disproportionately impacted African Americans, excluded them from purchasing single family homes in or near white neighborhoods, and resulted in the creation of segregated urban “ghettos.”

The Lanham Act was adopted in 1940 “to finance housing for workers in defense industries. Lanham Act projects played a particularly important role in segregating urban areas where few African Americans had previously lived. In some cities, the government provided war housing only for whites, leaving African Americans in congested slums and restricting their access to jobs. In other cities, war housing was created for African American workers as well, but it was segregated.” (P. 25).

These public housing construction policies had a long-lasting effect in segregating the U.S. They were exacerbated by the race-based policies of banks, and the federal agencies backing development projects that utilized unfair insurance and mortgage lending policies.

Discriminatory Lending and Insuring Practices Forced Segregation

In the 1950’s, “the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration not only refused to insure mortgages for African Americans in designated white neighborhoods…; they also would not insure mortgages for whites in a neighborhood where African Americans were present… State-regulated insurance companies, like the Equitable Life Insurance Company and the Prudential Life Insurance Company, also declared that their policy was not to issue mortgages to whites in integrated neighborhoods….The Bank of America and other leading California banks had similar policies, also with the consent of federal banking regulators.” (P. 13)

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) utilized an Underwriting Manual for years (at least up through the 1960’s) that based “property valuations, in part, on whether properties were located in neighborhoods where there was “compatibility among the neighborhood occupants,”” i.e., racially. (P. 66).

In addition, developers could not get federally back loans for integrated construction projects. These policies combined to make it difficult if not impossible for both whites and African Americans to live in integrated communities, as there were systemic barriers preventing new integrated communities from being built and pressures forcing previously integrated communities to segregate.

“Racially discriminatory government activities did not end fifty years ago. On the contrary, some have continued into the twenty-first century. One of the more troubling has been the regulatory tolerance of banks’ “reverse redlining” – excessive marketing of exploitative loans in African American communities. This was an important cause of the 2008 financial collapse because these loans, called subprime mortgages, were bound to go into default. When they did, lower-middle-class African American neighborhoods were devastated, and their residents, with their homes foreclosed, were forced back into lower-income areas.” (P. 109).

Race-Based Zoning and Construction Policies Forced Segregation

Zoning was one of the pressures forcing previously integrated communities to segregate. “In the 1920’s, a Harding administration committee promoted zoning ordinances that distinguished single-family from multifamily districts. Although government publications did not say it in as many words, committee members made little effort to hide that an important purpose was to prevent racial integration. Simultaneously, and through the 1920’s and the Hoover administration, the government conducted a propaganda campaign directed at white middle-class families to persuade them to move out of apartments and into single-family dwellings. During the 1930’s the Roosevelt administration created maps of every metropolitan area, divided into zones of foreclosure risk based in part on the race of their occupants. The administration then insured white homeowners’ mortgages if they lived in all-white neighborhoods into which there was little danger of African Americans moving.” (P 75).

In addition to zoning, Rothstein dives into the federal government’s process of utilizing highway and road construction projects to “clear slums,” removing African Americans from business centers and white-residential housing areas. States furthered segregation by their methods of citing schools in particular neighborhoods based on race. Local governments would also engage in shenanigans such as refusing necessary building permits, and disallowing access to utilities like sewer hookups, to prevent integration.

Race-Based Zoning Caused Disproportionate Environmental Impacts to African American Communities

“In addition to promoting segregation, zoning decisions contributed to degrading St. Louis’s [and other cities’] African American neighborhoods into slums. Not only were these neighborhoods zoned to permit industry, even polluting industry, but the plan commission permitted taverns, liquor stores, nightclubs, and houses of prostitution to open in African American neighborhoods but prohibited these as zoning violations in neighborhoods where whites lived. Residences in single-family districts could not legally be subdivided, but those in industrial districts could be, and with African Americans restricted from all but a few neighborhoods, rooming houses sprang up to accommodate the overcrowded population.

“Later in the twentieth century, when the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) developed the insured amortized mortgage as a way to promote homeownership nationwide, these zoning practices rendered African Americans ineligible for such mortgages because banks and the FHA considered the existence of nearby rooming houses, commercial development, or industry to create risk to the property value of single-family areas. Without such mortgages, the effective cost of African American housing was greater than that of similar housing in white neighborhoods, leaving owners with fewer resources for upkeep.” (P. 50).

“The use of industrial, even toxic waste zoning, to turn African American neighborhoods into slums was not restrict to St. Louis. It became increasingly common as the twentieth century proceeded and manufacturing operations grew in urban areas…Studies by the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Churches of Christ and by Greenpeace…[found that] the percentage of minorities living near incinerators was 89 percent higher than the national median.” (pp. 54-55). “Oftentimes…zoning boards made explicit exceptions to their residential neighborhood rules to permit dangerous or polluting industry to locate in African American areas.” (P. 55).

More recently, “In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a report confirming that a disproportionate number of toxic waste facilities were found in African American communities nationwide.” (P. 56). These problems continue today, and these harmful policies continue to haunt us.

Suppressed Incomes and Unfair Labor Practices Helped Cement Segregation

The government also implemented policies that “purposely kept black incomes low throughout most of the twentieth century.” (P. 153). “Until long after emancipation from slavery, most African Americans were denied access to free labor markets and were unable to save from wages.” (P. 154).

African Americans were barred from jobs, forced into lower paying/lower skilled jobs, and even forced into another form of slavery: “Mines operated by U.S. Steel alone used tens of thousands of imprisoned African Americans. The practice ebbed during World War II, but it wasn’t until 1951 that Congress fulfilled its Thirteenth Amendment obligation and explicitly outlawed the practice.” (P. 155).

In the 1930’s, new protections implemented for labor unions and the wages of the working class “excluded from coverage occupations in which African Americans predominated: agriculture and domestic service.” (P. 155-156). Unions excluded African Americans, and industries adopting union-only labor policies therefore excluded African Americans from employment. “…[F]ederal agencies continued to recognize segregated unions [thus legitimizing them] within the government itself until 1962, when President Kennedy banned the practice.” (Pp. 160-161).

These policies and practices combined to prevent African Americans from earning enough to leave depressed housing areas or own their own homes.

In Sum:

There are blatant ties between environmental racism and the United States’ housing, social welfare, education, labor, and criminal justice systems. Closer examination of each system reveals the common thread of racist policies and practices that have not been fully eradicated. At the end of the day, policy leaders cannot ignore America’s history and current culture of race-based discrimination and segregation.

Anyone in a leadership role working on policy issues that intersect with social justice – which is just about every policy issue - has a responsibility to understand, acknowledge, and address the inequities that our Government helped create and society perpetuated. If you want to be an environmentalist, know that your responsibility includes closely considering if not working with the people most impacted by the consequences of environmental pollution and degradation.


[1] The practice of blockbusting happened when real estate agents and developers would note when a few black people would move into or near an all-white community. Then they’d engage in different tactics to instill fear in the nearby white homeowners, convincing them that their neighborhoods would be impacted by an influx of black families, bringing in crime and decreasing home values. The agents would convince the white homeowners to sell their properties for less than their worth – to the agents or developers themselves. Then those same agents would turn around and resell the properties at grossly inflated prices to black families, who couldn’t find decent housing elsewhere.


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©2020 by Alyssa Barton