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.
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?