‘Color of Law’ Exposes History Of Federally Supported Segregation

March 17, 2021   |   Stewart Poisson

NCAJ Diversity and Inclusion Officer Stewart Poisson interviewed NCAJ member Margaret Rowlett, attorney at Hodgman, Rowlett & Jahnes, P.A. in Greensboro, about NCAJ’s upcoming inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Book Club meeting, where the selection is “The Color of Law:  A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein.

Rowlett recommended this book and will lead the discussion on April 14 at 6 p.m. Register for the book club meeting here.

In addition, Richard Rothstein will speak on “The Color of Law” on March 18 from noon to 1 p.m. at a program hosted by Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Durham Eviction Diversion Program. Find more on the Rothstein lecture here.

Here is what Rowlett, a board-certified specialist in Workers’ Compensation law, had to say:

How did you hear about “The Color of Law”?

I am part of an antiracism working group at my church, and we regularly read books together to learn more about race and racism. This book made a big impact on us as we realized that we had believed a myth about how racial segregation in our country’s residential areas developed. We had thought it developed mostly as the result of choices made by individuals and the private sector. Actually, as referenced in the book’s subtitle, “A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” explicit government policies played a major role.

As you were reading the book, what drew you in?

Growing up, I had the opportunity to attend excellent public schools and receive a quality education, but I was taught very little about the impact of racism in our country. I never learned the history of residential segregation that is covered in “The Color of Law,” including during my years in college and law school. Reading the book, I felt my eyes were being opened to very important aspects of our country’s history that I needed to know to be an engaged citizen.

What shocked you most in your reading of “The Color of Law”?

For me, the most mind-blowing part of the book was learning not only about how racial segregation in housing was promoted by governmental entities and policies in our country for such a long time, but also about the huge financial benefit received by white families. For example, as the federal government developed programs to encourage home ownership, agencies like the FHA and VA were backing mortgages almost exclusively for white families. People of color were almost uniformly excluded from receiving these benefits up until the 1960s. Home equity makes up a large part of the net worth of most Americans, and the financial impact of the advantages given to white families has been tremendous and contributed significantly to the racial wealth gap we see today.

What was it about “The Color of Law” made you want to take action and spread the word about this book?

This book helped me see much more clearly what systemic racism is, how it’s different from the racism of individual people, and what a huge impact it has on our lives. Where we live is tremendously important and affects our access to schools, groceries stores, health care, parks, and so much more. We need to think about how the forces of government have been used to segregate residential areas by race and how we want to respond now that we know this “forgotten” history, as the author calls it.

Do you think people need to have read the book to attend NCAJ’s inaugural Diversity & Inclusion book club meeting on April 14?

No, we will review information about the book as we discuss it. People who have not read it are welcome to participate. Hopefully learning more about the book will inspire everyone to read it.

We hope to see you at book club on April 14 at 6 p.m.