Education for a more equitable future: reflections from our recent book club

By Caitlyn Baylor, RAHFH Homeowner Services Coordinator

As you’ll often hear us say, the focus of our work at Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity, put simply, is to increase access to homeownership. On the surface, it is clear that this work addresses a present-day need: low-income families in our community need access to safe, affordable, owner-occupied homes, so we build and sell them. But when we dig deeper, we are reminded that this work is also contextualized by a long history of racial housing discrimination, which continues to have an enormous impact on where people live and whether or not they own homes today. To garner a stronger understanding of these forces, Habitat invited our board members, volunteers, community partners, and homeowners to read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law and then join us for a discussion.

In summary, Rothstein’s book chronicles the history of the modern American city and all of the practices and laws that governments intentionally employed within them to impose residential segregation following the Civil War. The book educates the reader on a myriad of intentional tactics, from racial zoning and restrictive covenants, which explicitly barred African-Americans from living in integrated neighborhoods, to  redlining and discriminatory financing, which openly prevented African-American households from becoming homeowners and reaping the financial gains of appreciating property values through the mid-twentieth century, and even to the strategic placement of highways and heavy industry to destroy the value of the neighborhoods where African-Americans could live. 

A mix of our staff, board members, volunteers, homeowners, and community partners comprised the twenty-person reading group. Participants selected one date to attend a discussion– July 27 or August 6– and gathered under the hot, Midwest, summer sun on a vacant lot in what we refer to as the “Brandon Subdivision.” It is the neighborhood in which Habitat has been developing homes for the last several years, and against the odds of the deeply ingrained patterns that the book explores, it is truly a racially integrated neighborhood. Our discussions were punctuated by the laughter of neighborhood kids playing together– kids from Iraq and the Congo, kids who are white, Latino, and black.

Still, as housing providers, our discussion of the book had a sense of gravity. Habitat’s work is to increase homeownership opportunity through the construction and sale of homes. We are an equal housing lender, but the borrowers who purchase these homes tend to represent demographic pools that have been systemically precluded from the conventional mortgage market by all of the tactics that Rothstein describes. Being shut out from owning a home in the mid-1900s meant being shut out from the primary opportunity middle class Americans had— and continue to have— to build wealth. It occurred to me, as we sat discussing the book in our lawn chairs and sun caps, that many of those served by Habitat would not need our alternative, affordable homeownership program if their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had had the same access to safe, decent, affordable housing and homeownership over the last century.

In his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered one year before his assassination and the ensuing passage of the Fair Housing Act, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the need not only to play the Good Samaritan when someone is beaten down along life’s roadside, but also to transform that roadside so that it is no longer a place where people are beaten down. Similarly, Habitat aims not only to intervene and provide critical housing to those who need it, but also to restructure the very edifice which makes housing unsafe, unaffordable, and inaccessible to many in the first place. Reading The Color of Law served as an important and disturbing reminder, at least for me, that this edifice does not exist by accident; it is not “de facto,” to use Rothstein’s terminology. Rather, it was intentionally engineered. Many cities like Rockford that were segregated from these decades of discriminatory legislation remain largely segregated today, and African-American households remain far less likely to own their home. We– as housers, as citizens– have a great responsibility to recognize, acknowledge, and help reverse this reality. So our work at Habitat addresses a present need in our community, yes, but The Color of Law reminds us that it also addresses a need that our own government began to cultivate over a century ago.

It is our hope that reading The Color of Law with our network of volunteers and stakeholders was the first of many actions to better educate ourselves so that we may work toward a more equitable future. We hope you will join us for whatever is next!