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Knowledge is Power: Reading the “Color of Law” in Milwaukee

Community transformation  demands a mosaic of resources, and one of the most important is knowledge—especially when it comes to understanding how government policy has shaped racial and income inequality in our neighborhoods. That’s why LISC Milwaukee has been sponsoring community book groups (90 in all) to read The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, an indispensable narrative of how federal and local legislation created and enforced racial segregation across America over the course of the 20th century. To celebrate this community learning effort, Richard Rothstein visited Milwaukee to speak to residents and local leaders about his book and strategies for reversing segregation.

The excerpt below is from:
‘Color of Law’ author inspires community members to reverse segregation
By Allison Dikanovic, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Richard Rothstein came to Milwaukee to talk about his nationally acclaimed book, “The Color of Law,” which details how federal, state and local governments deliberately segregated metropolitan areas all over the country. Though he uses examples from other places in the book, the policies he discussed occurred in Milwaukee too, and drastically shaped the makeup of the city.

Rothstein said he hopes his book shows cities like Milwaukee — a place that often is called the most segregated in the U.S. — that residential segregation is part of a broader, national force affecting everyone. He said it’s important to note that the commonalities among cities’ segregation is more important to consider than the marginal differences, and that the policies that got them here could be reversed if there is political will.

Donsia Strong-Hill, ED of LISC Milwaukee, author Richard Rothstein and Sakuri Fears, LISC program officer.
Donsia Strong-Hill, ED of LISC Milwaukee, author Richard Rothstein and Sakuri Fears, LISC program officer.

“The whole purpose of the book is to give people agency, to help them understand that our government created this,” he said. “The residential boundaries of every metropolitan area of this country violate the constitution, and we have an obligation, all of us, to reform it, to remedy a civil rights violation.”

He said the history of residential segregation is the root cause of many issues in the education, health and criminal justice systems.

“All of the racial disparities we see today now can in some way be traced to that conscious and deliberate segregation that our government engaged in,” agreed Kori Schneider-Peragine, senior administrator of the Inclusive Communities Program at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, one of the organizations that invited Rothstein to speak.

Rothstein makes the case that residential segregation in the United States is de jure, not de facto. This means that it was caused by explicit government rules, regulations and policies, not just by a conglomeration of people’s individual choices.

“None of us like it, but we all think that residential segregation happened just naturally,” Rothstein said. “But if we understand that it’s not a natural phenomenon, but that it’s the product of explicit government policy, then we can begin to have the conversations that are necessary to develop policies to undo it.”

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