A toy house sitting on a persian rug carpet in a dimly lit room.
Image Credit: edgeeffectmedia.com on unsplash.com

Leah Rothstein has been a consultant to nonprofit housing developers, local government, and private firms. Her policy work is informed by her years as a community organizer with PUEBLO and Californians for Justice and as a labor organizer with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). Recently, with her father Richard Rothstein, she coauthored a book called Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law. This spring, I had the chance to talk with Rothstein about her new book on how to undo race-based housing segregation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. [SD]

Steve Dubb: What led you to write Just Action? 

Leah Rothstein: My father, Richard Rothstein, wrote The Color of Law in 2017, a book that basically debunked the myth about why our communities are racially segregated. It is the myth of de facto segregation. That is, according to this myth, segregation wasn’t due to government policies and laws, but due to private action, personal choice, or accidental circumstance. And he called that myth nonsense in The Color of Law. He exposed the truth of how our country came to be racially segregated. A lot of people who read that book—me included—asked, “What do we do about it now?”

So, he took my question and asked me to help him write a book to answer that question. He enlisted me, and we started to put together ideas about the different policies and strategies that could go into challenging and redressing segregation on a local level. We interviewed housing policy experts, fair housing experts, and community development experts. 

And then we started finding people around the country who were working on this issue—small community groups that started, many of them after reading The Color of Law, and many long before The Color of Law came out. Our book not only describes the strategies but also gives examples of local communities around the country of people actually implementing and working on these strategies.

SD: Can you share an example of a local community working on desegregation?

LR: One example that is not in the book, but we write about it in our Substack column, is Menlo Park, which is a wealthy community in Silicon Valley in California. People there read The Color of Law and ended up creating an educational workshop about of their own region and how it came to be segregated. They ran this workshop for people all over their community—rotary clubs, the school district, foundations, and community groups. They started building a network and an organization of residents who were concerned about these issues—and concerned about the exclusivity of their city. It was so expensive that nobody could afford to buy into it. Menlo Park is a predominately White community. 

A school district proposed to build teacher housing—housing that was affordable to teachers on a site that they owned in the city. And some residents opposed it and put a ballot measure to vote against basically any rezoning effort would have to go to the voters to be approved. It would basically ensure that no multifamily housing could be built in this town because it was zoned mostly for single-family-only zoning. 

“There are a lot of smaller pieces of the puzzle that create segregation, and many groups are working on one piece at a time.”

The group that started to form around discussions of The Color of Law, they started a field campaign, went door-to-door, talking to voters, and they started to discover that a lot of their neighbors felt like they did. They were concerned that teachers could not afford to live in their community. They were concerned their children couldn’t afford to live in their community. They were concerned about the exclusivity of their town. They ended up defeating the ballot measure. It was a huge victory for them and a somewhat surprising victory in one of the most exclusive regions of the country. 

SD: Any other examples that you would like to share?

LR: Our book was filled with examples of what communities can do. One is in Cleveland, where a group started a right to counsel program that provides a right to an attorney for renters facing evictions. That was a small group. They worked with the United Way and the Lawyers’ Committee there and worked to provide free legal counsel that helped prevent a lot of evictions of renters in that area. There are a lot of smaller pieces of the puzzle that create segregation, and many groups are working on one piece at a time.

SD: Can you talk about how local organizing is building bridges between Black and White communities?

LR: It does take intentional effort to build cross-race relations. We talk about a few examples of the ways these relationships have been formed. Some of them are kind of creative. There was the Map Twins in Chicago. This is an art project that a photographer, Tonika Lewis Johnson, started. In Chicago, you can fold the map of the city in half and [the] streets line up perfectly, the north and south side of the street, the Black side of town and White side of town. 

Johnson created map twins for people whose houses matched when she folded the map in half. So those map twins, a White household from one side of town and an African American household [from] another side of town, they met and gave each other tours of their neighborhoods. They started to learn about each other’s lives and realized that they actually had a lot in common. And they started creating support networks. Many of these people had lived in Chicago their whole lives and had not been to the other side of town. 

So, this group is an example of how one can start to build cross-race relationships that can then lead to organizing for change. A lot of the map twins started to learn about how different their communities were because the same policies that created segregation also segregated resources. They can use that knowledge and the connections they are making to start working toward policies to redress that segregation. They are doing some neighborhood beautification projects and other support projects. It could translate into more effective organizing.

SD: How do folks who are dealing with different aspects of structural racism coordinate their work at the local level?

LR: Part of this work is coalition building, coordinating strategy, and supporting each other’s campaigns. 

There is also another tool, which is the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing process. This is a process that is required by the Fair Housing Act. The Obama administration issued a rule that gave jurisdictions some guidance on how to do that. It required that jurisdictions convene all the stakeholders in a community—those dealing with health, education, transportation, incarceration, and access to open space. 

All the advocates in the community and all the government agencies involved had to contribute to a plan to identify what the barriers are to fair housing and identify goals and strategies and responsible parties. This required community participation. What results is a very comprehensive plan that encompasses all these issues. The community can use that plan to hold officials accountable. If officials don’t adhere to the policies, they can be found out of compliance with their plan and federal funds can be withheld.

The Obama administration rule was rescinded by Trump, but now Biden is reinstating it. Soon jurisdictions will have to comply with these rules, and this is one way that all these players can come together. In the book, we give the example of New Orleans coming up with a comprehensive plan, which it is now implementing. 

SD: In your book, you cover housing broadly—from community land trusts to redoing appraisals to zoning. Could you discuss your approach to housing (both place-based and mobility elements) and how you see these actions advancing housing justice?

LR: There are a couple of ways I think about it. The strategies and policies we describe—the goal is to redress segregation. One part of this is forward-looking policies and strategies. Another part is redressing the past harms that created segregation.

It is one thing to say, as the Fair Housing Act did, that you can no longer discriminate in the sale of housing. But to truly redress segregation, you have to both repair past harm and prevent future discrimination and segregation.

So, that’s the broad framework. And then, we group the strategies into place-based and mobility approaches. Many in the housing policy field disagree on which to focus on. Should we focus on place-based strategies, which are those that increase investments in lower-income, segregated African American communities and then prevent displacement in those communities as investments increase, or should we focus on those strategies that attempt to open up exclusive, expensive, predominately White communities to diverse residents?

“It is our constitutional responsibility to redress the unconstitutional acts of our government, which were race-specific . . . that might take going against what the Supreme Court decides.”

These tend to be two different schools of thought—like we should focus on one or the other. We believe that we need both. We can’t truly challenge and undo segregation by only focusing on one type of community and not the other. We both need to increase resources in underresourced segregated communities where the concentration of poverty is the result of government-sponsored segregation, so we address the harms caused by segregation. We must also open up communities that have been exclusionary to more diverse residents. There are policies and strategies for both of those categories—lots of them—that can begin to accomplish both of those goals.

SD: In the second chapter of your book, you write about the Supreme Court, and call for limiting the court’s power. What do you see as a movement organizing strategy that can effectively succeed in challenging the court’s authority and power, which is no small thing?

LR: It is no small thing, that’s for sure. What we argue in that chapter is that people have come to accept the Supreme Court’s decisions and opinions as the ultimate say in these issues of racial equality. In this view, if the Supreme Court rules, as it may well do soon, that affirmative action is not constitutional, then we cannot take any race-specific and race-conscious remedies and actions to redress segregation. 

But we believe that it is our constitutional responsibility to redress the unconstitutional acts of our government, which were race-specific, and the only way to do that is with race-specific remedies. And that might take going against what the Supreme Court decides. It might take some courage on the part of policymakers and advocates, but that is how we are going to make progress. 

And that’s the way that it has always worked. The Supreme Court made a decision that people haven’t agreed with, and they take actions that go against the Supreme Court, and eventually, laws get changed. The Civil Rights movement is an example of that. Abortion opponents today are an example of this; they didn’t wait for Roe v. Wade to be overridden to pass abortion restrictions. We can similarly advocate for race-specific remedies to address race-specific harms in the past.

SD: If you had to pick a particular harmful Supreme Court decision, which one would you pick?

LR: The decision about school desegregation in St. Louis and Seattle (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1). In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the government had no business to remedy segregation because the government had nothing to do with creating segregation.

So, that’s an example of a Supreme Court opinion that cites this myth about how segregation was created. It advances a completely untrue history that the government had nothing to do with creating segregation. That is the kind of thing that needs to be challenged. 

What persuaded my dad to write The Color of Law was reading that decision. My father remembered a story he heard about St. Louis, where an African American family wanted to buy a home and were prohibited from doing so. And so, a White homeowner who was friends with this family decided to be a straw purchaser; he bought the home and then sold it to his African American friend. When this African American family moved into this mostly White community, there was a mob that formed and harassed the family; the mob was protected by the police. When this all died down, the White homeowner who helped this African American family get into the home was then tried and convicted of sedition. He spent time in jail for this. 

My dad looked at this decision where Chief Justice Roberts said the government had no role to play in creating segregation. He looked at this story, seeing all the government actors enforce segregation, act against a White homeowner, and protect the mob attacking a Black family, and said this doesn’t make sense. And so, we can challenge the myth that even the Supreme Court is advancing by showing that the government did take these intentional actions and therefore has an obligation to redress them.

“Just as there were many policies, actions, and actors involved in creating segregation, it will take many policies, strategies, and actors to undo it.”

SD: How do you see the housing desegregation movement interacting with the labor movement?

LR: There is obviously a lot of overlap. One example we give in Just Action in communities that have gentrified and displaced many of the African American and Latinx residents, as they have become more expansive, they have labor unions negotiating contracts with them. Many union members live in far-off suburbs and have to commute long distances. These unions represent workers in service industries, hospitals, schools. Those labor unions could advocate in their contracts for housing stipends and housing affordability for their workforce. Some are doing that, adding worker housing to their negotiating platforms. 

SD: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

LR: Just as there were many policies, actions, and actors involved in creating segregation, it will take many policies, strategies, and actors to undo it. Many people ask when we talk about this book, “What is the one thing we do?”

My answer is the one thing is anything. Which actions are the right ones to start with depends on the community, its challenges, and the opportunities it has. There is no lack of options for how to get started. The best excuse for doing nothing is to wait for the perfect solution. You just need to get started undoing the segregation in our communities one little bit at a time.