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Solimar Research

Undoing the Legacy of Segregation in California

Josh Stephens on
Jan 22, 2018

The average price of a home in Lakewood, a stereotypical middle class suburb south Los Angeles County, is $567,000. Richard Rothstein says that African-Americans, should be eligible to pay something closer to $75,000. That’s the inflation-adjusted cost of what homes sold for when they were new in the 1950s -- and when African-Americans were legally forbidden from buying them. 

Rothstein offers this provocation — which he admits to being unrealistic — to illustrate the profound, enduring financial hardships that African-Americans have suffered as a result of deliberate, widespread, and utterly legal (at the time) residential segregation. 

Rothstein's 2017 book The Color of Law, which he discussed at last Friday’s UCLA Extension Land Use Law and Planning Conference, argues that many of the de facto reasons for residential segregation in the United States were in fact de jure reasons. Actual laws and policies passed and implemented by cities, states, and the federal government, not to mention homeowners association bylaws that were often legally sanctioned, prevented African-Americans from living among whites in cities across the country, California included. (The Color of Law appears on Planetizen's "Top Books of 2017," to which I contributed.)

Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, cites potent illustrations of legal segregation, reaching into the Civil Rights Era and beyond. The East Bay city of Richmond was a small, racially integrated bedroom community before it became a center of shipbuilding in World War II. The federal government built public housing units by the tens of thousands, but it built separate developments for whites and blacks. Richmond has never been the same. Master-planned communities like Lakewood often included anti-African American covenants. 

Several Los Angeles communities refused to accept new federally supported development designated for (mostly black) workers at the McDonnell Douglas factor in Santa Monica. Eventually, the housing was built in Watts, which was then diverse and integrated. Not long after, Watts went up in flames in one of the country’s most devastating examples of black urban strife. Meanwhile, banks refused to lend to African-American homeowners in neighborhoods that were “redlined.” 

All of this happened not in Jim Crow Alabama or Georgia but in liberal, diverse, prosperous California. And it happened not that long ago. There may still be people living in those houses in Lakewood and Richmond who bought them when African-Americans could not. All these examples, Rothstein notes, are meant to debunk the perversely salubrious myth that today’s segregation derives simply from personal preferences and economic constraints. 

As if.

However integrated the United States may be today, Rothstein pointed out a damning truism: the country cannot de-segregate just because laws have changed. When a society finds its consciences and decides let everyone drink at the same water fountains or attend the same schools, those changes can happen overnight, by fiat. But millions of people — including the white residents who enjoyed privileged opportunities to buy homes and black residents who were shut out — cannot simply switch places, even if such a thing were just. That’s because, in part, while African-Americans earn, on average, 60 percent of what white Americans make, their net worth is roughly 10 percent of that of white Americans. 

Rothstein attributes this discrepancy largely to African-Americans’ former inability to buy homes (or at least to buy homes that appreciated as much as those of their white counterparts). Beyond family economics, Rothstein said that segregation is “the cause of most of our serious social problems,” including low educational attainment by African-American children forced into segregated, low-quality schools. 

These wounds will take generations to heal.

None of the above is anything new. All of it appears in Rothstein’s book. I recount these injustices, and their relevance to California because, in his talk, Rothstein issued what amounts to a moral call-to-arms. 

If Rothstein is justifiably disgusted by urban America’s history of racism, he’s only mildly less disgusted by the efforts to cover it up. He notes that mainstream U.S. history textbooks refer to urban segregation only in passing, and they typically perpetuate the myth of “de facto” segregation rather than implicate the government as they should. As such, Rothstein is on a crusade to inform Americans of the truth. He shared that truth with everyone at the conference, and I am passing it along. 

Urban planners are, of course, the ideal audience for Rothstein: they confront the legacy of segregation on a daily basis and they are in a position to do something about it. 

California’s planners cannot take $400,000 of the price of a half-million-dollar home. But they can envision diverse communities that offer ranges of dwelling units, commercial opportunities, and amenities — such as parks and access to transit - that can create a more equitable society, benefiting rich and poor, powerful and marginalized alike. (And, of course, marginalized populations include far more than just African-Americans.) On a statewide level, Senate Bill 1000 is being implemented, requiring cities’ general plans to include elements on environmental justice. That’s a promising step. 

Whatever the solutions, today's planners — working amid the wondrous diversity of today’s California — now have no excuse not to know about the problem. I leave it to their expertise, and their consciences, to figure out how to undo some of these injustices wrought and tolerated by their predecessors.