“We have a national myth that the reason our metropolitan areas are segregated is for informal reasons—private prejudice, differences in income, demographic trends, racial steering by real estate agents and so forth,” Rothstein said. “The reality is that the segregation that we see today was established by the federal government with help from state and local governments. It’s an officially established system.”
Rothstein said the federal government purposefully created segregated neighborhoods throughout the country when it started building public housing in the 1930s. He said sometimes the government destroyed integrated neighborhoods like St. Louis’ Desoto-Carr neighborhood to build public housing that was earmarked for one race. Clinton-Peabody, for instance was built for white families on the near south-side of St. Louis while another public housing project was built for black families downtown.
After World War II, the federal government subsidized the construction of great swaths of homes in city suburbs and made them available to purchase for veterans—as long as they were white. Rothstein credits the appreciation in value of those homes as being a major reason white Americans have been able to build more wealth over the past few generations.
“The enormous difference in wealth between median African-American families and median white families is almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy of the 20th century by which whites were subsidized to buy suburban homes which then appreciated in value many times over over the next generation or two and African Americans were prohibited from buying those homes so they didn’t gain any of the benefits of equity appreciation that white families gained,” said Rothstein.
Ferguson resident Cassandra Butler was part of a small but invested crowd listening to Rothstein speak Saturday. She said his research was an affirmation.
“African Americans aren’t necessarily in the economic position they are in because we ourselves are inferior,” said Butler. “It’s constructed, institutional policies that have led to where we are.”
The continued institutionalized racism against African-Americans is why the argument for reparations is morally correct if politically impossible. It also means that only federal programs will fix it. That includes ensuring that educational opportunities are not significantly better for suburban white kids than urban kids of color, whether through busing or nationalizing school funding, or other innovative programs. It’s the only way to move toward solving these problems in education, in housing, in employment, and in so many other facets of American life.