The Color of Law argues that the historical housing segregation of Black Americans was de jure, rather than de facto (as most Americans believe). It cites examples of laws, contracts, and policies from across the country which were designed to prevent integration and force Black people into ghettos. It ultimately concludes that because the state bears direct (de jure) responsibility for segregation, it also has a responsibility to correct segregation’s ongoing negative effects.
The Color of Law is a pretty good book. It’s well-structured and clear, its examples are strong, and the writing is superbly concise. However, its argument is actually very narrow. The Color of Law is a specific assertion about the de jure nature of American segregation, not an exposé about its history or wider effects. As such, I don’t actually understand this book’s goal or target audience.
Perhaps unfairly, I went in expecting something along the lines of The New Jim Crow or Evicted, books that changed public discourse by presenting the consequences of bad, racist policies through powerful, understandable human stories. They forced you to empathize with individual people whom, through no fault of their own, were trapped in a horrible, Kafka-esque system.
But The Color of Law isn’t like that. It often reads like a long, somber list of racist policies and state-sanctioned actions. Each item strengthens the narrow main argument, but doesn’t force you to care or be outraged in the same way Evicted does. At times it tries to add a human element, naming individuals who were affected by X policy, but usually these attempts feel somewhat flat and lifeless. The whole thing feels important but not evocative, the type of thing left-leaning people are likely to read, agree with, and then forget.
This book has gotten a lot of attention. It topped plenty of year-end lists and received various accolades. But for all the hype, I don’t think it will permanently alter the conversation around housing segregation like The New Jim Crow did for criminal justice.
That’s not to say The Color of Law is a bad book. In fact, it’s an excellent book within the scope of its narrow argument and if its goal is to convince Supreme Court justices, policy wonks, and legal scholars that American housing segregation is de jure. But if its goal is to get the wider public interested/outraged about racial segregation in housing, then I think it falls short. It’s just not as powerful or memorable as other books of the same breed.
That said, I’d absolutely recommend it to wonky policy people and anyone interested in race or housing.