A New Book Aims to Help People Address Inequality in Their Communities

published Jun 29, 2023
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Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, Leah Rothstein
Credit: Liveright Publishing Corporation

There’s a good chance you’ve seen the iconic cover of The Color of Law in your local bookstore. Written in 2017 by Richard Rothstein, research associate and distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute, it explores America’s history of “de jure segregation,” or segregation that directly results from exclusionary federal, state, and local laws (versus de facto segregation, which occurs without any legally imposed requirements). The book had a second surge in popularity during the country’s reckoning with racism in 2020, and has been educating readers ever since.

The de jure segregation that Rothstein describes was often encouraged by the actions of banks, real estate agents, and developers. Although it’s a pillar of American history and deeply embedded into the makeup of American society, segregation can be undone — slowly, but surely.

Rothstein’s latest work, Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law, seeks to answer the question, “What can we do about this?” Co-authored by his daughter Leah Rothstein, Just Action provides readers with actionable steps they can take to redress segregation in their communities. Here are five key takeaways from Just Action that anyone looking to rectify the segregation in their neighborhood should keep in mind. 

Fixing segregation must be intentional.

In the United States, “every major metropolitan area is segregated with clearly defined neighborhoods that are all or mostly white, and all or most Black,” Rothstein writes.

Segregation in U.S. cities today results from centuries of racist government policy such as redlining, real estate malpractice, and active disinvestment in Black communities. In other words, broad and pervasive inequality was created purposefully, which is why its effects continue today, even if the harmful policies no longer exist.

This means that combating segregation must also be done purposefully and intentionally, argues Rothstein. Residents and organizers can only achieve change through a committed effort that can’t fizzle out due to low neighbor turnout and pushback from other residents. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to undoing racial segregation. 

Every community is different, with a variety of demographic makeups, cultural values, and histories regarding segregation. Ultimately, repairing the effects of segregation in different communities does not warrant a one-size-fits-all solution. In the book, the Rothsteins share examples of several American neighborhoods that have taken their own approaches to remedying segregation. 

In the 1950s, homeowners in the village of Oak Park, Illinois, signed a housing discrimination ordinance to mitigate white flight from the area after more Black residents began to move in. This ordinance prohibited discrimination in home and apartment advertising, home sales, rentals, and financing, as well as outlawed real estate practices like panic peddling and blockbusting. Residents eventually created the Oak Park Housing Center, a nonprofit promoting integration in the area.

In the city of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, person-to-person mobilization resulted in groups of residents pressing local government, real estate agents, and banks to value integration in 1967. And in 1953, West Mount Airy, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, residents handed out pamphlets to their fellow neighbors to discourage white flight and challenge white real estate agents who were convincing homeowners to leave due to the influx of Black families to the area. 

There is power in local organizing. 

Just Action emphasizes the importance of community organizing. In the introduction, the authors touch on headline-making events, such as the murder of George Floyd, which incited a sweeping fervor for political and social change across the country in 2020 — only for the fervor to eventually die out. “Only a tiny number will become ongoing activists,” they write. “Few mobilize for local organizations that cascade into a national movement.”

The key is for activists to impart change in their immediate communities. On a local level, organizers have a clearer understanding of the issues affecting their communities and can utilize their deep-seated relationships with their neighbors to influence real and tangible change. Some examples of that in practice? Hosting implicit bias trainings for real estate agents, advocating for reversing discriminatory policies, teaching seminars on racial restrictions in high schools, and providing homeownership resources for low-income segregated neighborhoods.

Accountability is essential.

To rectify the racist remnants of the past, Rothstein states that the bankers, city developers, builders, and real estate agents that contributed to segregation need to approach the issue with “an attitude of accountability and an ownership of privilege.”

The book cites the example of the Chevy Chase Land Company, a regional housing developer in Washington, D.C., that created the affluent nearby suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. The company prohibited middle-class Black families from moving into its homes. 

Today, the median household income in Chevy Chase is $200,000 and property values are about $1 million. Black residents are only 6 percent of Chevy Chase, despite making up 25 percent of the population of the D.C. metro area. In this case, Rothstein says that politicians should lead an effort to reform Chevy Chase’s zoning rules in order to make the region accessible to Black households. 

Always be susceptible to change.

Readers and organizers should remain introspective when thinking of the steps they can take to solve segregation in their communities. It is important to be able to recognize when something isn’t working and be able to adapt to new information. 

For example, when it comes to gentrification — the product of affluent white people moving into majority-Black areas, thus displacing residents and disrupting native cultural practices — he says gentrifiers should prioritize racial integration and safeguard the cultural values of the neighborhoods they move into. The goal is to practice “conscientious gentrification” and make behavioral adjustments, such as shopping with local businesses and joining local groups that serve long-term residents. 

The essence of Just Action lies within the book’s adaptability. As Rothstein writes, “Just Action will require frequent updating because local groups will have successes and failures from which others can learn.”

Buy: Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law, $21.88 (originally $25)