Book Review: To Fight Segregation We Must First Build Community, Richard And Leah Rothstein Argue

A group of realtors known as “blockbusters” began preying upon West Mount Airy in Philadelphia during the 1950s, creating fear among Whites about an African American in-migration. Blockbusters aimed to persuade panicked Whites to sell their homes to them at a bargain, to then sell the homes at a mark-up to African Americans. In West Mount Airy, however, the community mobilized and prevented the neighborhood from transitioning from a White one to a segregated and disadvantaged African American one. The neighborhood formed an association that convinced Whites not to panic sell and to instead welcome African Americans. Over the years, the association created a food co-op, an arts center and other community facilities where Whites and African Americans could share experiences and create an inclusive neighborhood culture. 

You can find the full details of  West Mount Airy’s successful community mobilization – and many other such stories – in Richard and Leah Rothstein’s new book, Just Action: How to Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law. The Rothsteins describe a myriad of policies, actions and neighborhood institution-building efforts by community-based organizations, all aimed at combating entrenched segregation in our country. African Americans, the focus of the book, have encountered widespread discrimination and redlining from a plethora of people and institutions: not just blockbusting real estate agents but also banks, appraisers, local government agencies and property tax assessors. 

This syndicate of pernicious actors must be counterbalanced by an association of community-based actors that not only pursue a variety of policies and practices but that also establish a new culture of community and solidarity to combat the fear stirred up by the predators. NCRC members and other like-minded organizations should read this valuable book that provides a toolbox for them to create integrated and vibrant neighborhoods. 

Just Action is a followup to Richard Rothstein’s powerful 2017 bestseller Color of Law, which described the pervasive system of redlining, segregation and Jim Crow laws afflicting African Americans. 

That book prompted his daughter, the community and labor organizer Leah Rothstein, to ask her father: What can we do about all of it now? The two of them collaborated on Just Action to guide communities toward policies, practices and actions that stakeholders across the country must pursue to combat the ills of segregation and promote integration. 

Segregation creates enormous barriers for oppressed groups. The Rothsteins begin by reciting the litany of disadvantages behind today’s yawning racial wealth divide, in which African American wealth is about 5% of White wealth. Children residing in segregated neighborhoods never fully recover economically from a start in life that involves nutritional and educational deficits, they note. 

A divided society can never be a harmonious one, the Rothsteins write: 

“How can we ever develop a common national identity that is essential to the preservation of democracy if most Whites and African Americans live so far 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.” – Just Action: How To Challenge Segregation Enacted Under the Color of Law

After introducing the reader to the devastating impacts of segregation, the Rothsteins focus on two types of neighborhoods throughout the book. One set of recommended tools is tailored to activism in a predominantly White neighborhood that offers residents quality schools, jobs and life chances. In segregated African American neighborhoods, meanwhile, the Rothsteins argue that progress requires a different set of tools.

For predominantly White neighborhoods, the Rothsteins offer several policy options for promoting integration including prohibiting zoning laws that only allow single family housing on large lots and using Section 8 vouchers to provide housing options for lower-income African Americans. They offer practical advice on commonly used strategies such as inclusionary zoning that aims to provide a percentage of affordable housing for people of color in single or multi-family developments in White neighborhoods. 

They caution not to focus affordable housing only on low-income African Americans in affluent neighborhoods. In some cases, developers design this housing in a segregated manner – one entryway for market-rate tenants, and separate “poor doors” for the low-income residents – which can foster stereotypes among the White residents of their new neighbors. In addition to developing low-income housing in a careful and integrated manner, they suggest that missing middle-income housing or housing for moderate-income African American teachers, firefighters and similar professions must be part of inclusionary zoning efforts in White neighborhoods. The Rothsteins also voice support for financing low-income housing in highly resourced areas, something the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) has long advocated given the documented benefits for children and their educations. 

There is one piece missing in the Rothsteins’ moderate-income strategy, and it will be familiar to NCRC members. The strategy requires bank financing for moderate-income households. In 2022, after the federal bank agencies issued their proposed changes to the Community Reinvestment Act regulations, NCRC urged them to encourage integration efforts such as bank financing of moderate-income housing in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods. This approach is rarely reviewed and discussed on current CRA exams. More bank financing, particularly for a population that does not need deep subsidies in less expensive parts of the country, would decrease the need to spend public subsidies, which are too often the major tool used for affordable housing.

The Rothsteins also emphasize that tackling school segregation must be part of a neighborhood integration strategy. Even in neighborhoods that have achieved success in integrating housing, school segregation can threaten to re-segregate those neighborhoods. Courses in schools can include the history of redlining and efforts to overcome segregation – curricula ideally taught by some of the actors that in the past contributed to segregations such as real estate agents. The Rothsteins highlight curriculum reform undertaken by a local foundation and real estate professionals in Pasadena, California. 

The solutions recommended in Just Action are different for activists in segregated African American neighborhoods. There, effective reinvestment must tap the resources – and change the behavior – of banks and the private sector. Banks and other businesses have typically helped create the segregation that activists are looking to dismantle, after all.

That doesn’t automatically mean an adversarial relationship. The Rothsteins discuss a community benefits agreement between Old National Bank, NCRC and our members that remedied the bank’s historically discriminatory practices by opening branches in communities of color, placing mortgage lenders in these branches and financing community development in the neighborhoods. While reinvestment is critical according to the Rothsteins, it can also create displacement associated with gentrification if the right safeguards are not in place. Healthy reinvestment that benefits existing residents requires practices and policies like tenant protections, tenants’ right to pro bono legal counsel and prohibitions against bank financing of predatory property owners that evict lower-income tenants to make way for luxury condominiums. 

The Rothsteins highlight the roles of in-migrating Whites in maintaining community cohesion and solidarity among both new and existing residents of gentrifying neighborhoods. They tell the story of Luke Davenport, a White man who resided in changing neighborhoods in Washington, DC, and New York City and who calls himself a “conscientious gentrifier.” Davenport wrote a guide for other in-migrating Whites to show them how to ease tensions such as going to service in Black churches and participating in community organizations addressing food or educational issues. Such intentionality and presence helps the community- and culture-building that is integral to creating a stable and vibrant neighborhood. 

In order to succeed, regional and city-wide planning efforts must also engage community-based organizations to create viable integration initiatives. As part of their fair housing requirements, local jurisdictions should develop a fair housing plan that promotes integration and increases opportunities for people of color. The Rothsteins feature the City of New Orleans contracting with the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center to solicit the views of community-based organizations. As a result, the city’s plan included several recommendations and action steps put forward by public housing advocates, organizations promoting the rights of people with disabilities, environmental and transportation advocates. 

The Rothsteins also recommend the collection of data on demographics for integrative programs adopted by jurisdictions so that community stakeholders can track program progress and make recommendations for any needed improvements. This is similar to the approach recommended by NCRC in our letter on the proposed fair housing plan of the Washington, DC, region

After finishing Just Action, the reader is left with a wide variety of ideas for making neighborhoods more vibrant and integrated but also with the sense that this work is quite difficult. That’s why it is important to highlight local success stories as a means for inspiring replication. The Rothsteins intend to continue to disseminate more information and stories after the release of this book. 

The mild criticism I would offer is that the book does not discuss the experiences of other races and ethnicities beyond African Americans. The Rothsteins explain this choice as an intentional focus on the legal and societal structures of segregation that were designed primarily with African Americans in mind. They mention that several of their strategies can be successfully employed in other communities of color. With the Rothstein framework in mind, I hope others contribute to this valuable literature by discussing the experiences of Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and other communities of color that continue to highlight and inspire remedies and community building.

Josh Silver is a Senior Fellow at NCRC.

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