Confronting the truth about segregation

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I was one of 500 who packed into a steamy Lyric Theatre last Friday afternoon to hear economist Richard Rothstein share his deep knowledge of segregation in America. In my nearly 20 years in Rochester I had never seen such a diverse group coming together to confront truth about the racial divide in our community.

Richard Rothstein

An economist, Rothstein is a distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and a senior fellow, emeritus, at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and of the Haas Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. His journey unearthing the roots of housing segregation following World War II began with the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled state laws mandating racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. Yet neighborhoods nationwide remain segregated. 

Collectively, we have chosen to believe that residential racial segregation was a byproduct of real estate deals, mortgage lending practices and exclusionary covenants in private transactions—not the result of laws and government policies, Rothstein says. He believes we have opted to believe in “de facto segregation” to excuse ourselves from the responsibility of demanding change.

In his book “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” Rothstein makes the case that such private activity resulted from government policies designed to keep blacks separate from whites. 

At Friday’s event—hosted by Pathstone, an organization that works to lift people out of poverty—Rothstein described what happened in the mid-1950s in Shively, Ky., when a white couple bought a home on behalf of a black family, an act that sparked violence, protests and charges against the white couple.

Alice Young, who was employed by the Rochester City School District in the 1950s, shared her story about buying a home here, a tale with strong echoes of the Shively incident. Young and her family were able to acquire a home in the 19thWard when a white friend helped buy it for them. The Youngs experienced threats from the Ku Klux Klan and hostility from some neighbors.

Rothstein also described federal housing policy that emerged as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Depression-era program sought to boost private home building industry and alleviate a housing shortage. However, all-white housing projects outnumbered the ones built for blacks only, and few were integrated.

At one point in his address Rothstein asked the audience if they remembered Pete Seeger’s song “Little Boxes.” The reference took me right back to our living room in India. My father, who was at Columbia University in the 1960s, brought home many LPs from that era. Seeger’s music was among of them, and we listened to him often. As an 8-year-old Indian, I had no idea what Seeger was singing about, other than the fact that music could be a form of protest. 

With the song playing in my head, Rothstein talked about William J. Levitt, who made “Levittowns,” little towns with box-like houses constructed with bank loans guaranteed by the federal government, laying the groundwork for suburbs. For a number of years, only white people lived in those homes.

The Fair Housing Act in 1968 was an attempt to reverse housing segregation. The law prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of homes based on race, color, origin, religion, family status, sex and disability. It has resulted in many housing discrimination cases, yet the challenge remains. Extreme disparities in neighborhoods linger. People of color continue to live in areas with limited resources needed for success. Rothstein argues that such geographic discrimination is a violation of the federal Civil Rights Act and therefore unconstitutional. 

Rothstein’s talk was an uncomfortable lesson in American history. When he asked us how we can expect whites and blacks to empathize with each other when they have historically lived apart, or have been conditioned to live separate lives, its present-day relevance struck a chord. 

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article on Kendra Evans, who is running for town supervisor in Pittsford. As I reported on that story, it uncovered the very “separateness” Rothstein speaks of, the “othering.” I learned how blacks make up only 1 percent of Pittsford’s population, down from 3 percent in 2010. I heard of parents who believe the Urban-Suburban program is as far as suburban “kindness” should go and how whites shouldn’t stand up to defend blacks because they wouldn’t understand their struggle. I heard that the city, where I lived for more than a decade, was dirty and rife with crime. I had to set my own perspective aside to try to understand the basis for these views. Then came the latest round of tweets from President Donald Trump, handing a megaphone to the us-vs.-them crowd.

Are we so used to living one way that we can’t be expected to live another? Rothstein wasn’t planning on doing what he does, building momentum for change in his 80s, he says. And yet he is. Other speakers pointed to the fact that the audience was proof we are ready to do something about racial segregation. I felt empowered with the words and by the strength of numbers in that room. 

I am aware that many disagree with Rothstein’s view of the government’s historical role in housing segregation. My family wasn’t in the United States at the time. Still, racial inequity is not new to me. It is reality.

As I walked back to my car with two young Indian men, who are visiting Rochester and were my companions for Rothstein’s talk, we spoke about discrimination and shared stories from India. The difference, they said, was that in America we could have a talk like that and listen to others share their stories. They reminded me of one of the reasons I came here, for freedom of thought and expression.

As Rothstein says, racial segregation harms both blacks and whites. It’s not a white or a black problem, it’s an American problem. We all have to solve it together.

In the face of calls for nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, can we?

6 thoughts on “Confronting the truth about segregation

  1. In recent years I’m noticing more conversation and activity across racial lines about segregation in Rochester. I’m not sure what’s prompting this long-needed change now vs. before, but it gives me a lot of hope that Rochester is finally moving in a direction so it can heal and become a cool community for everybody, not just for some. It’s been pushed under the rug of Smugtown for way too long. I’m so glad Dr. Young told her story about the discrimination she and her husband experienced looking for a home and after they moved in. She speaks for so very many. The deed to the 1927 house I lived in on Farmington Road in North Winton Village specifically forbade African-Americans from living there. Sadly, this was far from unusual. It was the norm. It was planned right into the beautiful, comfortable subdivisions Rochester is known for, built in the early part of the 20th century, the kind of neighborhoods we love to explore on our annual home tours. These special places were advertised as “restricted.” We all know what that means. They’re beautiful, but this community has paid and is still paying the price. And as you point out, that mentality is still strong, decades later. Thanks for this thoughtful and informative piece, Smriti.

  2. People of color are flocking to the United States because we are the greatest and most tolerate country in the world. Mr. Rothstein is living in the past. People of color have unbelievable opportunities to succeed in this country. Promoting people of color as victims, create a self fulfilling prophecy of failure. That’s what happening in the inner cities where leftist policies have created urban blight. Mr Rothstein should educate himself with the writings of Black scholars such as Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Larry Elder and many other who would disagree with a white scholar such as Mr. Rothstein.

  3. As a child, I remember occasionally driving with my family through the “bad part of town” on our way to somewhere else, and seeing the “projects.” They looked dirty, ugly and dangerous, with broken windows, piled-up junk and rusted cars evident. In contrast, all the (white) people I knew lived in comfortable if modest houses surrounded by grass and trees, in neighborhoods where we could safely walk. When I asked the adults in my life why black people lived in such awful, scary places, I was told, “They like it that way.” It took me a long, long time (as an adult) to really understand the MANY things wrong with that scenario, including white people’s perceptions of what black people “like.” I have to assume that many whites of my generation were indoctrinated in the same way. No wonder why racial discrimination in housing, and all that goes with it, has persisted so long.

    • I remember riding through poor white neighborhoods. They were also stereo typed. In fact, as an infant we lived in the “projects”. A low income housing project that was predominantly white. That was over 60 years ago. Government policies of the 1960’s promoted dependency and urban blight. 75 years ago Japan and Germany were genocidal dictatorships who committed the most disgusting atrocities. 45-60 years China executed 10’s of millions of their citizens in the name of communism. Stalin did the same in the Soviet Union before that. Certainly, today Japan and Germany are exemplary countries. People of color are flocking to America because we stand for victims of hate, discrimination, and genocide. America defeated the genocidal maniacs in Japan and Germany. Stop this bogus argument of how bad America is. The proof is illegal immigrants are fighting to come to this country everyday. Many black scholars are tired of this mantra America is racist. Many agree that the left and media promotes victim hood instead of embracing the freedoms and opportunities America has . My advice to the leftists is; quit living in the past, it’s ancient history and move forward.

  4. And why do you think your family’s public housing was “predominantly” white?—and why did your family manage to move out, while many black families didn’t? Unless yours was a highly unusual case, your family did so with explicit aid from the federal government. Many conservatives concede this point, and it’s precisely why they are against government intervention in the market. It’s always a good idea to read a book before publicly expressing an opinion about it. Or at least read a good synopsis of the argument. You’ll find one here: https://prospect.org/article/public-housing-government-sponsored-segregation

  5. A well known quote is that those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it , and I’ll add :
    and repeat it , and repeat it , etc . Truth in history in the Age of Lies is still truth whether it’s written by a white or a black person .
    Sadly , this is not just a domestic issue , this history under the Monroe Doctrine for most of the 20th century has given us the crisis at our border . Our corporations and banks, supported by the powerful U.S. Military , nearly enslaved our Southern hemisphere . From Domino Sugar , Mining companies, United Fruit , and more , as well as the Mafia in the Hotel and Gaming industry in Cuba, partnered with dictator Battista . America’s Corporate and military role in overthrowing democratically elected leaders in Guatemala (Arbenz) in 1954 and in Chile (Allende) in 1973 for Pinochet made the hemisphere safe to exploit brown and indigenous peoples . The murdered and disappeared tens of thousands . If that was not enough our corporations and banks stole the land . We made Castro and Guevara .
    I’ve seen this sickness of racism since a childhood in the 1950’s . As a college student in 1969 we opposed a war based on lies and achieved Black studies in college . Obviously we did not do enough or win . We put a bigot in office and whenever he does a campaign event , which is about all he has done , hate crimes in those locals increase over 20% in the days that follow . Social media sites that support our president are as disgusting as anything coming out of Alabama when MLK was alive . High school history books are pretty sad , even when they read Frederick Douglas , as he is dismissed as a 150 years ago and all is well now .
    Maybe we start by making Ta-Nesi Coates required reading in every high school . Thank You for a great article Smriti .

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