The New Connections book club wrapped up their three-session discussion of Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. The unanimous opinion was that the book is well worth the read. “How do we get it in more people’s hands?” asked Sorell Murillo, the host of session three.
In the first two sessions, an engaged group dove deeper into the policies, agencies, banking practices and politics behind a century of segregation that has resulted in sharp color lines in dividing neighborhoods and communities. The myth that segregation is a de facto result of isolated acts and the deeply held beliefs of society took a hard fall under Rothstein’s research. Instead, the segregation was de jure—the intentional result of planned and coordinated policy and laws at the Federal, state, and local levels. And when agencies turned a blind eye and did not defend the constitutional rights of citizens, their “way we do things” became policy as well.
The book began with an analysis of Richmond, California. If African Americans were intentionally disconnected from housing and job opportunities in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, then it happened everywhere. And in Rothstein’s laboriously researched book, there’s example after example in communities from coast to coast. For members of the group who understood the history of redlining in Roanoke, the book still brought surprise after surprise.
“It wasn’t that the black residents couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhood.” said Jarett Alexander, session two host, “It was rigged so that they actually had to pay more–even when they were segregated into neighborhoods of less quality.” And they were usually at risk of losing their homes because of the unfavorable terms of the loans.
Council Member Bill Bestpitch pointed to the past differentiation in tax rates used in some communities. “The book showed how, historically in some communities, African American neighborhoods paid more taxes for fewer services than those in white neighborhoods, and when the taxes couldn’t be paid, the properties were seized. Fortunately we have Federal and State regulation now that requires transparency in the rates. We report ours from Roanoke community wide and by neighborhood.”
By session three, many in the group were itching for strategies to address the long-lasting effects of segregating policies. City Planner Chris Chittum joined the group for session three. “Interwoven equity is the guiding principle for the City’s current comprehensive planning process,” said Chittum. “That really means that we’ll spend the next couple of decades really trying to undo what’s been done to the community over time. Conversations like these are important. They need to continue them.”
Lasting residential segregation is a problem that challenges Roanoke, and Roanoke is not alone in facing it. There are no easy answers. Rothstein dissuades readers from thinking there are win-win solutions. “There are costs involved, he writes,” and some may be substantial.”
A first step is education, the group agreed. If we’re ever going to have a constituency to create a remedy, we have to understand the problem. This isn’t taught in schools, as Rothstein points out brief, minimizing, and passive passages from popular textbooks. There’s more to know, and we can take the responsibility of learning it.
The New Connections Book Club is now identifying the next book for discussion. Want to be part of the conversation? (It’s a very welcoming group.) Sign up here to be included on the email list.
Thanks to the Roanoke City Library Main Branch for the use of the Teen Meeting Room. ★