The Color of Law
A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
Read this to understand how segregation came about: individual preferences? policies?
A common explanation for de facto segregation is that most black families could not afford to live in
predominantly white middle-class communities and still are unable to do so. African American isolation, the
argument goes, reflects their low incomes, not de jure segregation. Racial segregation will persist until more
African Americans improve their educations and then are able to earn enough to move out of high-poverty
The explanation at first seems valid. But we cannot understand the income and wealth gap that
persists between African Americans and whites without examining governmental policies that purposely kept
black incomes low throughout most of the twentieth century. Once government implemented these policies,
economic differences became self-perpetuating. It is not impossible, but it is rare for Americans, black or
white, to have a higher rank in the national income distribution than their parents. Everyone’s standard of
living may grow from generation to generation, but an individual’s relative income—how it compares to the
incomes of others in the present generation—is remarkably similar to how his or her parents’ incomes
compared to others in their generation.
So an account of de jure residential segregation has to include not only how public policy
geographically separated African Americans from whites but also how federal and state labor market policies,
with undisguised racial intent, depressed African American wages. In addition, some and perhaps many local
governments taxed African Americans more heavily than whites. The effects of these government actions
were compounded because neighborhood segregation itself imposed higher expenses on African American
than on white families, even if their wages and tax rates had been identical. The result: smaller disposable
incomes and fewer savings for black families, denying them the opportunity to accumulate wealth and
contributing to make housing in middle-class communities unaffordable.
If government purposely depressed the incomes of African Americans, with the result that they were
priced out of mainstream housing markets, then these economic policies are also important parts of the
architecture of de jure segregation.