Book Review: The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein


Author: Richard Rothstein
Title: The Color of Law
Narrator: Adam Grupper
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2017)
Summary/Review:

Housing segregation continues to be the rule in the United States today as most neighborhoods, cities, and suburbs are greatly tilted to be either mostly white or mostly African American. Politicians, pundits, and everyday people consider this de facto segregation, based on the choices of individuals to live among people of “their own kind,” or credit the wealth disparity that prevents Blacks from affording to live in white areas.

In this book, Rothstein argues that this common wisdom is all wrong.  He argues, with lots of evidence provided, that in the past 100 years, the Federal, state, and local governments have created de jure segregation of housing.  By historically being shut out from housing opportunities offered to whites, African Americans were unable to build equity and create generational wealth to pass on to later generations, contributing to the prosperity gap that exists today.  The places where Blacks and whites live today were created by the de jure segregation laws of the past, and laws against discrimination are only half-measures in that they do not undo the damage done in the past.

Here are some of the ways in which the government segregated housing detailed in the book:

  • Federal Housing Authority subsidizes housing in whites-only subdivisions.
  • FHA enables redlining by refusing to insure African American mortgages.
  • FHA regulations for segregation actually written into widely-distributed manuals. Local projects that intended to be integrated could be forced to follow these Federal regulations.
  • Public housing projects built for whites were larger and better resourced, while separate public housing for Blacks were usually smaller and something of an afterthought. White projects often had vacancies while Black projects had waiting lists.
  • Property taxes overassesed in Black neighborhoods and underassessed in white neighborhoods, adding to the burden of making ends meet for Black families.
  • Government programs that enabled whites to buy homes in the suburbs not available to Blacks. A generation of African Americans ended up trapped in decaying cities, far away from good jobs that had also moved to the suburbs.
  • Restrictive covenants that prohibit Blacks from moving into white neighborhoods granted legal protection.
  • Highway projects deliberately targeted Black neighborhoods for construction, demolishing viable communities and creating barriers around what remained (while at the same time benefiting prosperous white car owners commuting between city and suburbs).
  • Police and governments allow and abet violence by whites against Blacks who move into white neighborhoods. If fact, Black victims more likely to be charged with a crime if any legal action is taken at all.
  • IRS maintains tax exemptions for organizations that fund segregated housing.
  • Housing segregation serves as a stumbling block to integration of schools.
  • Government aware that Black home buyers were being targeted for risky subprime mortgages but fail to act on regulations to protect them.
  • Section 8 vouchers restrict African Americans to housing located only in poor, African American neighborhoods

Rothstein also offers a final chapter with several solutions to segregation and inequality in the United States:

  • Education – this book is a good start to countering the widespread belief in de facto segregation based on individual’s preferences and prejudices. The history of the government’s support for funding and requiring segregation must also be taught in schools.
  • Revive George Romney’s proposals to deny HUD funds to any communities that use exclusionary zoning to enable housing segregation.
  • Use the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing of the Fair Housing Act to rectify barriers to desegregation of housing.
  • Subsidies for African American homebuyers in predominately white areas (in a sense, restitution for their parents, grandparents, great-parents being unable to buy homes in these areas back when whites purchased homes at bargain rates).
  • End zoning regulations that prohibit multifamily housing or require large lots.
  • Promote inclusionary zoning.
  • “Fair Share Act” to require states to establish mechanisms to ensure that every jurisdiction houses a representative share of African Americans and low income people.
  • Allow African Americans to use Section 8 subsidies in areas with higher rents, and model Section 8 programs on the mortgage income deduction which applies to all rather than being first-come, first-serve.

This is a powerful and important book and should be read by all Americans who care about creating a just and equitable country.

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Rating: *****

Movie Review: 13th (2016) #atozchallenge


This is a bonus post for the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  Movies are frequently alphabetized with films titled with numbers separate from the letters A to Z.  So this review represents all the documentaries that have numbers for a title. Technically this movie’s title starts with “T,” but I also really wanted to to watch Tower, so this is a good way to get them both in.

Title: 13th
Release Date: September 13, 2016
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Kandoo Films
Summary/Review:

The 13th of the title refers to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution which freed slaves in the United States and is celebrated as a major act of emancipation.  But it didn’t end slavery because one clause allows slavery of criminals.  This movie explores the many ways in which people, mainly black people, have been denied their freedom by being criminalized over the past 150 years.

After the Civil War, many black people were immediately enslaved again in convict leasing programs.  By the turn of the 20th century, strict systems of segregation were put in place with brutal violence and lynching to keep it enforced, both of which were justified by claims that blacks were dangerous criminals.  Once the Civil Rights Movement seemingly brought a measure of equality to black Americans, politicians used coded phrases like “law and order” to once again criminalize black Americans through things like the “war on drugs.”  The film depicts the procession of US Presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton each upping the ante in the activities criminalized, the severity of punishments, and the resources to enlarge and militarize the police and create a massive system of incarceration.

The film also takes time to focus on the organization ALEC, a conservative coalition of corporations and politicians, that drafts laws that help their members profit from new laws that help them sell firearms, operate private prisons, or profit from lucrative vendor contracts with prisons, among other things.  The film concludes with numerous familiar, but powerful, stories of black people suffering the dehumanizing effects of imprisonment – many of them in prison because of a system that encourages them to take plea deals even if they’re innocent.  And then there are the images of some of the many black men, women, and children killed by police – something clearly not new as this film illustrates, but something easier to document with modern day technology.

DuVernay features a large cast of experts who speak in this film, basically offering the narration over a wealth of archival footage.  Participants include Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, and Charles Rangel.  Some participants from the “other side of the aisle” include Newt Gingrich (who surprisingly speaks of how he now realizes what was done in the name of law and order was wrong) and Grover Norquist (whose attempts to frame the understanding of the history of mass incarceration as a liberal conspiracy pale against the evidence presented in this film).

DuVernay also makes some interesting choices stylistically, with the participants filmed casually dressed in relaxed poses in some unusual locations, including what looks like an abandoned railroad station.  I’m not sure if there’s any significance to these choices I’m missing, but does add a layer of beauty and mystery to the film.  Another element frequently used is animated text on screen spelling out words spoken or sung in the film, including the word “CRIMINAL” which appears each and every time someone says “criminal.”

This is a powerful film and really a must-see for all Americans.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

There’s so much in this movie that it’s difficult to take it all in.  I’m fortunate in that I’ve read about most of the issues discussed in this movie, but it’s still something to see all tied together in one dense package.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

If you’ve been reading along my A to Z, you’ve seen my posts about several other films that tie into the themes discussed in 13th, especially The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and I Am Not Your Negro.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander – a prominent person in this movie – is the key text for understanding mass incarceration in the United States. Some other important books on the experience of black Americans denied freedom and criminalized include When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: *****

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow


Author: Ron Chernow
TitleAlexander Hamilton
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: New York, N.Y. : Penguin Audio, p2004.
Summary/Review:

A straight-forward biography of General Washington’s right-hand man, Constitutional crusader, and founder of American finance as first secretary of treasury. It does not shy away from Hamilton’s failings such as an ill-tempered tongue and poor decisions, but mostly presents him as an honorable person who set the United States on the course to greatness before his own fall from grace (followed by his being felled by a dueling pistol).  Chernow relies on the unnuanced history that presents Aaron Burr as pure villain, but Burr did kill the book’s protagonist, so I suppose it’s only fair.  If you’re looking for an introduction to one of the United States’ overlooked but fascinating founders, this is it.

Recommended books:Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming, Ordeal of Ambition: Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr by Jonathan Daniels,  Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side by Leonard W. Levy, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis and John Adams by David McCullough
Rating: ***

Book Review: Revolutionaries by Jack Rakove


Author: Jack Rakove
Title: Revolutionaries
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2010.
ISBN: 9780618267460

Summary/Review: Subtitled “A New History of the Invention of America,” this historical look at the American Revolution and the framing of the United States Constitution does take a different approach than the typical popular history of the era.  Rakove tries to emphasize that founders of the United States were ordinary men who rose to the occasion to make the best of the opportunities that the revolution provided for nation-building.  He also emphasizes that these founding fathers rarely agreed.  The strength of this book is that if offers an intellectual history of the arguments that America’s founders and the compromises that they needed to agree to.  Rakove also deserves credit for including figures whose names rarely appear in popular history – such as George Mason, John Dickinson, Charles Carroll, John Jay, Henry and John Laurens, Richard Henry Lee and Robert Morris   –  alongside John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin.  The book systematically discusses the origins of the revolution, the decision for independence, the course of the war campaign, diplomatic missions in Europe, United States governance under the Articles of Confederation, the framing of the Constitution, and the successful establishment of the new government.  My main criticism of this book is that Rakove is often too generous in discussing the motivations of his subjects.  For example, most historical works interpret George Washington wearing a military uniform to the Continental Congress as a deliberate part of a campaign to gain the command of the army, but Rakove makes it seem like happenstance.  Regardless, this is a well-written and engaging history of the nation’s founding and I recommend it to anyone interested in the time period.

Other little tidbits I liked:

  • John Adams liked Rembrandt’s work, especially “The Prophetess Anna,” the portrait of his mother with a bible that my son liked at the Rijksmuseum.
  • In a letter written in 1784 to Samuel Mather, Benjamin Franklin expresses a desire to return to his childhood home of Boston and perhaps “lay my bones there.”

Favorite Passages:

“We think of happiness as a personal mood or state of mind.  In the eighteenth century its connotations were broader. . . Happiness was a condition that whole societies as well as individuals could enjoy.  It implied a state of social contentment and not merely personal cheeriness and good humor.  Happiness was one of those broad concepts that both private and public meanings, subject for philosophical inquiry rather than psychological babbling.  For Jefferson the concept of happiness was something to ponder as well as pursue.” – p. 300

“Traditionally, bills of rights were thought to operate as a restraint on government by providing people with a basis for knowing when their rulers were overstepping their power.  But that function no longer fit the political life of the republic.  ‘Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is the danger of oppression,” Madison observed.  “In our Governments the real  power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is cheifly to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.'” – p. 394

Recommended books: Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood, and Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman
Rating: *** 1/2

Constitution Day


Commemorate September 17, 1787 – the day when 39 delegates signed the US Consitution – by learning more about the United States’ system of government:

If you haven’t done so already, this a good occassion to register to vote in the upcoming national election.

Links of the Day for 17 January 2008


This morning I fell back to sleep and had one of those dreams where I got up and got ready for work.  I should have figured out it was a dream when I gathered up all my clothing and headed out to catch the T.  Once I boarded I took a shower on board the trolley in a public shower which replaced the booth for the conductor/door guard.  That was a definite clue that I was not really awake and going to work, because I never take the trolley!  Sounds like a good idea though to have showers on public transit.  Imagine the efficiency for those of us who are always running late to work!

Anyhow, it was one of those days, so here are some links:

  • For kids: Watch it – this art is on the move! by Sue Wunder (Christian Science Monitor, 1/8/08) – I experienced the Clouds exhibition at Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art.  There were a bunch of school kids playing with the clouds and it would have made a great photo, but photography was prohibited and I’m a flagrant rule follower.  It just occurred to me that visit to the art museum will be 10 years ago on January 22nd.  Man am I old!
  • The Secret History of the Revolving Door by J Morrison (nonist, 1/10/08) – an amusing if perhaps factually challenged history to be sure.
  • Actual Urban Nature Post by Jef Taylor (The Urban Pantheist, 1/16/08) – talks about the coyote in the North End and has a great quote about where “the wild” is for wild animals.
  • Diagramming the Preamble (1/17/08) in which Mallard Fillmore’s Bathtub teaches a civics lesson by way of English class.  He also reminds us that today is Benjamin  Franklin’s 302nd birthday.