Sunday, November 19, 2023

Q&A with Richard Rothstein




Richard Rothstein is the author, with Leah Rothstein, of the new book Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted under the Color of Law. His other books include The Color of Law. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute, and he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Q: How did you and your daughter come up with the idea for collaborating on Just Action, and what do you see as the relationship between The Color of Law and this new book?


A: The Color of Law was a book of history that described how racial segregation in every metro area was not a de facto result of discrimination but an explicit design of policies of federal, state, and local governments. It had the effect of not having African Americans and Whites live near one another.


I published the book in 2017 and I talked about it around the country. People would ask, what can we do about it? I felt an obligation to answer, and I turned to my daughter, who’s an expert on housing policy with a degree in urban planning, and recruited her to co-author the book.


Our assumption in Just Action was that there was no appetite today for federal policies on racial segregation, but once you create an apartheid system, that segregation is sustained by local programs. A lot can be accomplished by organizations at the local level—biracial groups to challenge the expression of segregation.


Q: As someone who wrote a book with my father many years ago, I’m interested in how the two of you worked together on this project. Can you describe your writing and collaborating process?


A: It was a wonderful collaboration. I’m now in my 80s, and a high point of my life was this collaboration with my daughter. It was a risk, but it worked out better than either of us could have expected.


Q: In the Washington Monthly, writer Richard D. Kahlenberg said of the book, “Just Action does an admirable job of laying out a number of promising ideas that activists can push localities, states, and the federal government to pursue in order to provide Black people with greater protection against racial discrimination and help uplift disadvantaged people of all races.” What do you think of that assessment, and what are some of the most important of those ideas?


A: We describe many programs at the local level. There are dozens in Just Action. One of the things we say is that it doesn’t matter which one you start with. Opportunities may vary from place to place. Small victories will lead to larger ones and give groups confidence.


One example is the property tax assessment system. Tax assessors are local officials. Across the country, African Americans pay property taxes at higher rates than Whites do.


Very few jurisdictions reassess property every year. In the intervening period, properties in White neighborhoods appreciate faster than those in Black neighborhoods. You don’t have to wait for the assessed values on Black neighborhoods to be reflective of that. Black homeowners are paying higher property taxes, and African Americans are paying a greater proportion of the property value to pay for services.


A local movement could conduct a campaign arguing that this system is not discriminatory in intent but it is in effect, and should provide redress.


Another example is the way banks evaluate the creditworthiness of African Americans for mortgages. Credit scores are assembled by companies and provided to banks through Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. The credit score is supposed to be an indicator of how good a borrower you are.


The credit scoring system uses as a primary piece of evidence whether you’ve owned a home and paid your mortgage on time. Forty percent of African Americans were homeowners and 70 percent of Whites. The banks have electronic means of providing mortgage payments.


African Americans may never have missed a rental payment, but that’s not used as information. They find it harder to get mortgages and if they get it they have to pay a higher rate.


A local group could go to banks and credit unions and identify people denied mortgages, and seek redress.


Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to racial discrimination in this country?


A: If local activists organize and conduct campaigns, they can make a difference. Twenty million Americans participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations—Black and White, lower and middle income. It was the largest outpouring for racial justice in this country. People put Black Lives Matter signs in their windows—and did nothing further.


We think there is a large group that would support action, and the book is designed to put it into practice.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Leah and I have a column on Substack, Just Action—we are hoping to make people aware of the book and take action.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I hope the blog will lead people to take a look at the book and get ideas of how to convene with neighbors and friends to take action in campaigns to advance desegregation in the country.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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