“The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America” is a book by Richard Rothstein that outlines how 20th century laws impacted segregation and discrimination in housing practices that continue to this day.
On Saturday, Feb. 29, the Greene County Library is holding a book discussion from 3-4:30 p.m. led by speaker Craig Wilson, an urban planner and community development specialist from Summit Design and Engineering Services in Richmond.
Wilson has direct experience in his professional work with the effects of government-imposed segregation and has also helped to manage the $1 million Stanardsville Downtown Revitalization grant project. While he did not write the book, he is personally and professionally interested in the topics presented and how they impact our locality, and has also heard the author speak at Virginia Commonwealth University, where Wilson is an alum.
“One of the big premises that he tries to tackle in this book is the idea that we in America have believed for many years, that the segregation that we find in our communities is … ‘de facto’, and we’ve always assumed that typical housing patterns were set by the choices that individuals made to live in a given community,” Wilson said. “His research went back to look at all the different rules, regulations and laws that have been in place in the United States particularly in the 20th century, and found all kinds of things that have been there all along in the record but people didn’t really … add two plus two together. He makes the case therefore that the segregation patterns that continue to exist today are because of the laws that were in place in America.”
Wilson said it’s the laws that have been in place for many, many years that caused the segregated patters and helped to keep them in place.
“We really need to be honest and look back at those and have the conversation about segregation with that in mind. It really does change the way you look at some of the issues that we still face today in that regard,” he said.
In the 1930s, after the Great Depression, the threat of foreclosures was imminent for many homeowners. To combat this and to help homeowners keep their homes, the National Housing Act of 1934 created the Homeowners Loan Corporation, and one of the first things the corporation did was to create maps of areas where it would be “safe” or low-risk for them to offer loans to help homeowners in major metropolitan areas.
In a recent study on the city of Richmond called “Mapping Inequality in Richmond,” these same maps were examined and compared to various statistics on poverty levels in the area from that time period.
“If you take one of those maps … and you look at the neighborhoods they said were ‘bad risks’ and they would not therefore make loans in, they were the black neighborhoods,” Wilson said. “If you look today at where the worst poverty is in Richmond, it’s in those very same neighborhoods. If you look at foreclosures that happened during the recession, the larger number of them took place in those very same neighborhoods. If you look at poverty and the segregation of schools, it’s pretty much in those very same neighborhoods. So, things that happened back in the 1930s—by law—the pattern that got exacerbated and continued because of that is still with us today.”
Wilson said reading the “Color of Law” helped to open his eyes to some issues that were present in his day-to-day work.
“I’m an urban planner. I know about zoning, I know how that all works, but I did not realize until I was reading this book how much zoning in its early days had a racial discrimination intent to it, not just separating out various land uses but separating out various people groups,” Wilson said.
While technically zoning based on segregation is illegal, “when you have zoning that says the house has to be so big or the lot has to be so big and we don’t want small houses, you are basically saying we don’t want people of modest means to live in our neighborhood,” he added.
Wilson said even as recent as 25 years ago discrimination was made possible in Richmond through policy.
“About 25 years ago, Housing Opportunities Made Equal won a major discriminatory case against insurance companies that were refusing in Richmond, Virginia, to insure homes in certain neighborhoods, and those were mainly black neighborhoods,” Wilson said.
Wilson held a similar talk in Strasburg two years ago.
“I gave the example of how the Homeowners Loan Corporation—which became FHA—after World War II we had all these soldiers coming home; we were building houses like crazy in America. But FHA would not lend to African-American families. They would not guarantee the loans for developers building these brand-new subdivisions if they were going to allow African-Americans to live in the homes,” he said.
In Levittown, N.Y., on Long Island, the idea of ‘cookie cutter homes’ was born in this era, Wilson said, and these giant subdivisions of identical homes were built with the idea that they were only for white homeowners. However, many of the contractors were African-American, and some would set up a system where someone else would buy one of the homes they had worked on and then sell it to them later, to subvert the segregation laws.
“I was talking about this… and one of the town council members was there, and he raised his hand and said ‘I grew up in Levittown when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I watched the KKK burn a cross in front of a house in Levittown. I did not understand then what that was all about. I understood later what the KKK was about, but I did not understand until just now why that happened the way it did in Levittown.’ It happened because a handful of black families moved in to Levittown and they were scared out,” Wilson said.
The fair housing book discussion will take place on Saturday Feb. 29 at 3 p.m. in the Greene County Library’s meeting room, with book sales by Bound2Please and refreshments provided. The library is at 222 Main St., Stanardsville.