Book Club Discussion: “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein

Our Legislation Team decided that a book club would be a good way to begin discussions around race, equity, inclusion and justice. They created a list of books dealing with these topics and began to read down the list. To read more about this process, please read our previous blog post about the book club. 

Today we are going to share the resources and study questions from the book The Color of Law, by historian Richard Rothstein. In The Color of Law, Rothstein lays out the history of de jure segregation. Laws and policies were enacted and enforced at the local, state and federal level that promoted discriminatory housing practices. The result of these laws and policies not only created the segregated communities we now have, they are a primary cause of the wealth gap we see today between whites and African Americans in the United States as whites were able to take advantage of wealth building in homes whose value has soared over the decades. Rothstein argues that racial segregation is the deliberate product of “systemic and forceful” government action, and so the government has a “constitutional as well as a moral obligation” to remedy it.

Discussion Questions:*

    1. What surprised you as you read The Color of Law? Was this history known to you?  
    2. What do you know about your own community and your local zoning policies during the 20th century? How segregated or integrated is your community? What would it look like if your community were required to have its “fair share” of middle-class, minority and low- and moderate-income housing?
    3. Textbooks typically used in middle and high schools don’t describe government’s role in creating residential racial segregation.  Rothstein writes, “If young people are not taught an accurate account of how we came to be segregated, their generation will have little chance of doing a better job of desegregating than the previous ones.”  What can each of us do in our own communities to change how this history is taught in our schools?
    4. Chapter 8 example: How did you feel about the several cases where people tried to do the right thing and failed because of the way the system of laws and policies and pressure worked to keep racial segregation? How did reading about this history of racial segregation make you feel?
    5. The impact of government-sponsored segregation has had tragic consequences and impacted generation wealth for African Americans.  Some think that the government should concentrate on improving conditions in low-income communities, not try to help their residents move to middle-class areas. They say that easing the movement of minority and low-income families to predominantly white neighborhoods will meet much resistance. Yet others say that low-income communities have too little political influence to ensure follow-through in attempts to improve conditions in segregated minority neighborhoods. What are your thoughts? Can we fulfill our ideals as a democratic society if it is only more equal but not integrated?
    6. Difficulty of Undoing Residential Segregation
      – The multigenerational nature of economic mobility
      – The substantial appreciation of homes created a large racial wealth gap
      – The substantial appreciation of homes means homes are now unaffordable to many African-Americans
      – The mortgage interest deduction increased subsidies to higher-income suburban owners
      Should we and how can we remedy residential segregation?  What are your ideas for making change?
    7. We typically expect to understand two sides of a story.  Is there anything missing from The Color of Law that might modify its argument?
    8. After reading The Color of Law, a young African-American high school graduate sent an e-mail to the author:
      “As I was growing up, I looked at the racial segregation and accepted it as how it has always been and will be; I equated white neighborhoods with affluence and black neighborhoods with poverty. I didn’t think about the major role the government had in hindering the equity accumulation of African-Americans. I think I ingrained this inferiority complex and that is why I did not excel in school as much as I could have.”
      What is your reaction?

* In our one hour and forty-five minute session we were not able to get through all eight questions.  

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Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Book Club Suggested Reading List

Book clubs can provide PTA leaders and families in your community a chance to have discussions on important issues. The California State PTA Legislation Team wanted to further their understanding around the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice so they began a monthly book club. In the new year we will be sharing with you their discussion questions and resources for each book here on the blog. We hope this will inspire you to make 2021 a year of learning, collaboration and growth in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.

The team’s first task was to create a list of books, then they set to work reading them. Every month they come together to discuss one of these selections:

  • How To Be an Anti-Racist, Ibram Kendi
  • The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein
  • The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
  • White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo
  • Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing
  • So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
  • White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson
  • My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem
  • We Gon Be Alright, Jeff Chang
  • A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Jeanne Theoharis
  • We Want to Do More than Survive, Bettina Love
  • Dying of Whiteness, Jonathan Metzl
  • Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi
  • Caste, Isabel Wilkerson

Some general notes about the book club:

  • We meet once a month via Zoom to discuss the books.
  • The book club is optional for our team, but we found that most wanted to participate.
  • After two books we realized that this discussion should be larger, so we invited the entire California State PTA Board of Managers to join us.
  • Our format for the hour-and-a-half* book study is:
    • Welcome and short book summary: 5 minutes
    • Housekeeping: 5 minutes
    • Questions and thoughts: 75 minutes
    • Wrap up and introduction of the next book: 5 minutes
  • We have found many resources online, including videos from the authors that help to ground our discussions
  • As part of our housekeeping conversation we discuss the technical aspects of holding a discussion on Zoom, but we also share how these conversations may be challenging and while we might not agree, but we need to remain respectful.
  • We do not record these sessions — attendees need to be present to participate.

* Our discussions have been so good that we have gone over time, but we make sure that the bulk of the discussion is done in the time allotted.

Sample of our housekeeping language:

Raise your hand (either using the Zoom “hand” icon or your actual hand) if you want to speak and watch the chat box for the order of speakers whose hands I have seen raised. If I miss you, keep your hand up. I encourage everyone to get a chance to speak, so it is possible that if you have spoken a few times, I may skip over you to give others a chance to say something!

Before we begin the book discussion, I want to say that this topic and many of the topics that the Leg Team is reading about in our book club are hard, difficult and emotionally charged issues. We are discussing issues that we may not all feel the same way about. California State PTA has more liberal leaning members and more conservative leaning members….and that is the beauty of our organization. So many people from different perspectives and beliefs, coming together for the good of children and families. So, I want us to be cognizant of that in our conversation today. Please let’s make sure that we respect, listen and value each other’s thoughts and feelings on this topic and keep the conversation thoughtful, honest and civil. While the nation may be struggling to communicate on troubling issues, I truly believe that PTA can rise above that and we will be able to have a meaningful conversation. So let’s get started.

What’s next?

Stay tuned for The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. In January we will be sharing with you our resources and discussion questions for this book.

Book Review: “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander

The CAPTA Legislation team is in the process of reading and discussing one book a month on the topic of the African American experience in the U.S. We decided to do this to educate ourselves about this pertinent and important issue. Our first two books were How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi and The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. Our third book is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

The book asserts that the War on Drugs and resulting mass incarceration of African Americans is The New Jim Crow.

Author Michelle Alexander contends that there is no truth to the notion that the war on drugs was launched in response to the crack cocaine epidemic. The war on drugs was announced in 1982, before cocaine use became an issue. At the time, less than 2% of the public viewed drugs as an important issue. The Reagan administration hired staff to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine in 1985 as a strategy to build public and legislative support for the war on drugs. Eventually there was a surge of public concern, but it did not correspond to a dramatic shift in illegal drug activity but instead was the product of a carefully orchestrated political campaign.

In less than 30 years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. Our incarceration rate is 6 to 10 times greater than other industrialized nations. There are more people in the U.S. in jail today for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. The vast majority of those arrested are African Americans charged with relatively minor crimes. Arrests for marijuana account for 80%. People convicted of drug offenses now constitute the single largest category of people in prison.

Why? What happened?

According to the author, few legal rules constrain police in the war on drugs.

The Supreme Court has eviscerated the 4th Amendment (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures). The Court has upheld the constitutionality of unwarranted search and seizures for suspected drug offenses. In addition, laws were passed that gave law enforcement agencies the ability to keep cash and assets seized during a drug arrest. Huge federal grants were given to law enforcement agencies willing to make drug law enforcement a top priority. Millions of dollars in federal aid was offered to state and local law enforcement  agencies to wage the war.  So long as the number of drug arrests increased, federal dollars continued to flow.

And who was targeted for this profitable war? The Black population.

It is estimated that 3 out of 4 young Black men can expect to serve time in prison for a drug offense. Despite the fact that studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkable similar rates, in some states Black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than white men.

What has been the actual effect of the war on drugs?

Although it is common to think of poverty and joblessness as leading to a life of crime, the research cited in this book suggests that the war on drugs is a major cause of poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families, and crime in the African American community.

Being in prison is not the only problem. Today a person released from prison has scarcely more rights and arguably less respect than a freed slave. There is no public assistance, the job market is bleak for convicted felons, and they are barred from serving on a jury. They are shunned by all. Shame and stigma follow jail time. Severe isolation, distrust and alienation are created by incarceration.

Prison sentences and the resulting felon label pose a much greater threat to urban families than actual crime itself. As a crime reduction strategy, mass incarceration is an abysmal failure. It is largely ineffective and extraordinarily expensive. Prison creates criminals; it doesn’t help anyone or change them or give them a chance to redeem and recover.

The point of this book is to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy through mass incarceration.

By reading and discussing the books on our list, the members of our Legislation Team are learning and understanding many of the factors that are impacting families of color and look for ways that we can advocate for change in the best interest of all children and families.

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