Why we keep saying US zoning laws are the legacy of racism

A Better Cambridge
3 min readJan 2, 2019

The Color of Law on zoning — Richard Rothstein’s jaw-dropping “Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

When you say zoning has a racist legacy, people just don’t believe you. Some of our most liberal towns have restrictive zoning — and they can’t be racist, right?

Well … you’d be surprised.

Where’s the proof, though?

We at ABC AF have been convinced by the research of law professor Richard Rothstein, who our sister-org A Better Cambridge invited to speak in May 2018, drawing a crowd of 500+. (Stream his remarks + panel talk here.)

Rothstein’s larger thesis debunks the idea, sadly embraced by our Supreme Court, that residential segregation “just happened.” He explains the many insidious ways in which our government, at all levels, engineered it.

This post is a quick summary of Rothstein’s chapter on how zoning laws segregated our housing. I haven’t paraphrased — the following comes directly from his text (except headlines in bold), with cuts for brevity.

SUMMARY of “RACIAL ZONING” | Chapter 3, The Color of Law

We’re more segregated than we were 100 years ago

“Residential integration declined steadily from 1880 to the mid-twentieth century, and it has mostly stalled since.”

Anti-segregationist ruling backfires

In 1917, the Supreme Court “ruled in Buchanan that racial zoning ordinances interfered with the right of a property owner to sell to whomever he pleased.”

Many cities flouted the Court.

But in cities that respected the law, “segregationist officials faced two distinct problems: how to keep lower-income African Americans from living near middle-class whites and how to keep middle-class African Americans from buying into white middle class neighborhoods.”

Urgent interest in zoning to circumvent the Constitution

“To prevent lower-income African Americans from living in neighborhoods where middle-class whites resided, local and federal officials began in the 1910s to promote zoning ordinances to reserve middle-class neighborhoods for single-family homes that lower-income families of all races could not afford.”

“Such economic zoning was rare in the United States before World War I, but the Buchanan decision provoked urgent interest in zoning as a way to circumvent the ruling.” “In the wake of the 1917 Buchanan decision, the enthusiasm of federal officials for economic zoning that could also accomplish racial segregation grew rapidly.”

In 1921, President Harding’s commerce secretary created a “manual explaining why every municipality should develop a zoning ordinance,” distributing “thousands of copies to officials nationwide.” The committee that developed the manual “was composed of outspoken segregationists whose speeches and writings demonstrated that race was one basis of their zoning advocacy.”

The Supreme Court has since upheld obviously racist zoning rules

City planners across the nation “believed that zoning rules that made no open reference to race would be legally sustainable — and they were right.”

In 1926, the Supreme Court reversed its “freedom of contract” thinking to uphold a zoning rule outlawing apartment buildings in single-family neighborhoods. To do so, it overruled the lower court judge’s findings, which had held that the zoning law’s “true racial purpose” made it illegal.

In the years since, “numerous white suburbs in towns across the country have adopted exclusionary zoning ordinances to prevent low-income families from residing in their midst. Frequently, class snobbishness and racial prejudice were so intertwined that it was impossible to disentangle their motives and prove that the zoning rules violated constitutional prohibitions of racial discrimination. In many cases, however, … localities were not always fastidious in hiding their racial motivations.”

Using zoning to segregate housing “persisted well into the latter half of the twentieth century.”

In 1977, the Supreme Court upheld a zoning ordinance in a Chicago suburb that outlawed multi-unit development anywhere but next to an outlying commercial area. The ordinance ensured that few, if any, African Americans could live in residential areas. The city adopted the zoning ordinance at a meeting where the public urged action for racially discriminatory reasons.

Richard Rothstein’s personal conclusion

“In too many zoning decisions the circumstantial evidence of racial motivation is persuasive.

“I think it can fairly be said that there would be many fewer segregated suburbs than there are today were it not for an unconstitutional desire, shared by local officials and by the national leaders who urged them on, to keep African Americans from being white families’ neighbors.”

Summary by ABC Action Fund Executive Director Eugenia Schraa.



A Better Cambridge

All-volunteer pro-housing group on a mission to address the housing crisis in Cambridge + beyond.