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In the Community

Understanding Hampton Roads: Author Richard Rothstein discusses housing segregation

March 01, 2021


Governmental regulations at the local, state and federal levels have contributed to the high rates of segregated housing nationwide, writer Richard Rothstein said at a recent forum sponsored by the Hampton Roads Community Foundation. That means public officials should work to reverse those levels, which also exist in our region.

“We have an obligation under our Constitution as American citizens to redress (such) civil rights violations,” said Rothstein, author of the 2017 book, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” He also is a distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and a former columnist for The New York Times.

Rothstein was the lead speaker at the Feb. 25 virtual event, part of the “Understanding Hampton Roads” series sponsored by the community foundation. Nearly 1,600 people registered for the forum, which reflects broad interest in the subject.

Rothstein's book aims to debunk the myth that only de facto practices – the bigoted actions of private parties such as real estate agents and mortgage lenders – have led to the residential segregation we see today.

In contrast, he noted that explicit laws and policies bolstered suburban communities that excluded African-Americans, which is referred to as de jure segregation. These laws ultimately created wealth for White families, while denying those same opportunities for People of Color.

As one example, Rothstein cited the Levittown community on Long Island, N.Y., built shortly after World War II and designed for war veterans and their families. As The New York Times previously reported: “Its doors were opened to at least one former German U-boat sailor, while Black American soldiers were turned away.”

Rothstein’s book notes the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited future discrimination, but it didn’t reverse residential housing patterns that had become embedded in many cities.

Panelists Eugenia Jackson, president of the Hampton Roads Association of Real Estate Brokers, and Johnny Finn, associate professor of geography at Christopher Newport University, said it’s still difficult for families to integrate some neighborhoods, including local ones. Credit scores, zoning regulations and other criteria can effectively prevent lower-income families – often People of Color – from moving to certain communities.

Finn noted that residents must contend with their own NIMBY-ism – Not In My Back Yard – if neighborhoods are truly going to become more welcoming to people of all races. And, Jackson said the large presence of military families in the region actually “is helping us deconstruct segregation in this area.”

Don’t forget the ballot box, Jackson said, in effecting change: “I think the African-American community is waking up to the power of the vote.”

The program is part of the Understanding Hampton Roads series sponsored by the community foundation. The Chesapeake Bar Association, Norfolk & Portsmouth Bar Association Foundation, South Hampton Roads Bar Association, and Virginia Beach Bar Association joined the community foundation as event partners.

If you missed the dialogue, watch the replay above. Also, review these action steps below.

Action Steps to Address Residential Segregation
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