State-Sponsored Discrimination

Illustration of housing outside a central city
Illustration by iStock

Residential segregation—much of it codified in federal, state, and local state law—has, over time, deepened disparities of wealth and access to education in the United States. Richard Rothstein ’63 documented that history to devastating effect in The Color of Law (2017). Now, he and coauthor (and daughter) Leah Rothstein, an affordable-housing consultant, have published a manual, Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law (Liveright, $25). They ask, “How can we ever develop the common national identity…essential to the preservation of our democracy if most whites and African Americans live so apart from each other that we have no ability to identify with each other’s experiences or empathize with each other’s hopes and dreams?”

Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85, J.D. ’89, who has written extensively on education and class in America, has now taken up these underlying issues, too, in Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See (PublicAffairs, $30). Describing the circumstances facing KiAra Cornelius, an employed single mother of two school-age children living in a challenging neighborhood in South Columbus, Ohio, Kahlenberg writes:


For low-wage workers like Cornelius, the biggest obstacle…is state-sponsored economic discrimination. In most American cities, on three-quarters of residential land, zoning laws prohibit the construction of multifamily units—duplexes, triplexes, and apartment buildings—that might be affordable to people like Cornelius. In some suburbs, it is illegal to build multifamily housing on nearly 100 percent of the residential land. Only single-family homes are permitted—sometimes with a minimum lot size requirement added in. Some local laws provide that when multifamily units are allowed, they must have expensive features, such as special trims or facades. All of these requirements are designed to keep families like Cornelius’s out.

These laws are not part of a distant, disgraceful past. They are, says one researcher, a “central organizing feature in American metropolitan life.” Indeed, following passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that outlawed racial discrimination, communities doubled down on economically discriminatory zoning—and other discriminatory land-use policies (such as growth moratoria)—which disproportionately hurts people of color like Cornelius and also hurts working-class white people.

This new economic discrimination is harder to see because it is more subtle than raw racism.

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