Historian Says Don't 'Sanitize' How Our Government Created Ghettos Richard Rothstein, who studies residential segregation in America, concludes: "Federal, state and local governments purposely created racial boundaries in these cities."

Historian Says Don't 'Sanitize' How Our Government Created Ghettos

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/406699264/406749329" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The recent unrest in Baltimore is the legacy of a century of federal, state and local policies designed to quarantine Baltimore's black population and isolate its slums, according to my guest, Richard Rothstein. He says that the effects of these policies continue today. Rothstein has spent years studying the evolution of residential segregation nationwide. Last summer, after Michael Brown was a shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. and some of the protests turned violent, Rothstein wrote the report, "The Making Of Ferguson: Public Policies At The Root Of Its Troubles." He's also written extensively about how poverty affects education. Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California Berkeley.

Richard Rothstein, welcome to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: I think the American public, including the people trapped in poverty in inner cities, don't understand how literally ghettos were legislated into existence. Do you consider it part of your mission now to explain that, to put some of the anger that's happening that we are seeing now in context?

ROTHSTEIN: Yes. We've forgotten all this history. It's not that we never knew it. But we've forgotten it. We have a myth today that the ghettos in metropolitan areas around the country are what the Supreme Court calls de facto, just the accident of the fact that people have not enough income or - to move into middle-class neighborhoods - or because real estate agents steered black and white families to different neighborhoods or because there was white flight. But the truth is that while those things existed, the major reason we have ghettos in every metropolitan area in this country is because federal, state and local governments purposefully created racial boundaries in these cities. It was not the unintended effect of benign policies. It was an explicit, racially purposeful policy that was pursued at all levels of government. And that's the reason we have these ghettos today, and we are reaping the fruits of those policies.

GROSS: And it's amazing, really. This - there's policies on so many different levels. There's policies pertaining to loans to buy housing. There's policies preventing you from moving into certain neighborhoods. There's policies about zoning that affect the kind of climate you're living in, if you're trapped in a neighborhood because you're black and no white people are going to let you move. So it's really coming at you from every direction.

ROTHSTEIN: Yes, there were many, many policies, as I said, at the federal, state and local levels. Probably the chief ones, the most important ones, were public housing, which began in the New Deal for civilian populations. And the federal government, under the Public Works Administration of the New Deal, had an explicit segregation policy. Its policy was that public housing could be used only to house people of the same race as the neighborhood in which it was located. But in fact, most of the public housing that was built in the early years was built in integrated neighborhoods, which they razed and then built segregated public housing in those neighborhoods. So public housing created racial segregation where none existed before. That was one of the chief policies. The second policy, which was probably even more effective in segregating metropolitan areas, was the Federal Housing Administration, which financed mass production builders of subdivisions in the - starting in the '30s and then going on through the '40s and '50s, in which those mass production builders - places like Levittown, for example, and Nassau County in New York and in every metropolitan area in the country - the Federal Housing Administration gave builders like Levitt concessionary loans through banks, as they guaranteed loans at lower interest rates for banks that the developers could use to build these subdivisions, on condition that no homes in those subdivisions be sold to African-Americans. The Federal Housing Administration even provided model language attached to the deeds that builders could use to ensure that no purchaser could resell to an African-American. So while there was an initial civilian housing shortage in the '30s, '40s and early '50s, which meant that public housing was built as a segregated policy both for whites and for blacks in separate projects and separate buildings, as that period developed, the subdivisions in the suburbs were built for white families. They were lured away from the public housing. Public housing became all black in the inner city. And these two policies, of public housing and Federal Housing Administration's subsidization of suburbs, are the two major factors that created the segregation that we know today.

GROSS: I suppose one should never be surprised by the extent of racism in America. But it's still shocking that that would be legal in the North, where there wasn't legal segregation.

ROTHSTEIN: But there was. This was not legal; it was unconstitutional. But this was the policy the federal government followed. As I said, it was once well known. You know, in 1970, George Romney, who was the secretary of housing and urban development under Nixon, the father of the recent presidential candidate, announced that the federal government had created a white noose around African-American neighborhoods - Negro neighborhoods, he called them - in central cities. And it was the federal government's obligation now to untie that noose. And Romney implemented a series of policies designed to integrate the suburbs, to reverse the policies that had been pursued in the previous 20 years. He proposed to withhold federal funds for all kinds of things, sewer projects or water projects or parklands, from any suburban community that didn't desegregate, by repealing ordinances that prohibited the construction of multifamily units or that didn't take their fair share of public housing throughout the metropolitan area or that didn't accept subsidized housing. And he actually - Romney actually did withhold federal funds from three suburbs as his first round of this policy. He called it Open Communities. And there was such an uproar in the country about it that President Nixon reined him in. Romney was forced to cancel the Open Communities program. He was eventually forced out as secretary of housing and urban development. And we've had nothing since from the federal government that was anywhere near as aggressive in trying to reverse the policies that the federal government had pursued to create segregation.

GROSS: So for anyone thinking, sure, but that's all in the past - but we've made progress, so segregation in housing isn't as extreme as it was in the past or even in the recent past... What would you say to those people who think that?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, let me give you an example of how these policies persist into the present and their effects persist into the present. I mentioned Levittown before as one of these developments. And they were all over the country. They were in St. Louis. They were in Baltimore. They were in San Francisco. Well, at that time - the early 1950s, late 1940s - when Levittown and the Daly City development and others around the country were built, they sold for about, oh, seven, eight, $9,000. In today's terms, that would be about $125,000 or about two times or two-and-a-half times the national median income. Returning war veterans were able to afford homes like that. Black and white could have afforded them, but only whites were permitted to buy them. Well, today, homes in places like Levittown or Daly City or the suburbs in places like St. Louis and Baltimore and other cities around the country that were built in this fashion sell for 400, $500,000, about seven times national median income. Well, in the intervening period, in the 50 years following the construction of these homes and their purchase by working-class, lower-middle-class white families, those white families gained appreciation - equity appreciation - of about 350, $400,000. They used that money to send their children to college, to send their grandchildren to college. If they sold their homes, they gained that bonus and bequeathed it to their children and grandchildren. African-Americans, who were denied the opportunity to purchase those homes at a time when they could have afforded it just as easily as white families could, they gained none of that appreciation. The result is that today, African-American average incomes, family incomes, are about 60 percent of white family incomes. But African-American wealth is about 5 percent of white family wealth. And that difference between 60 percent of income and 5 percent of wealth is entirely attributable to federal housing policy. Now, in 1968, we passed the fair housing law, the Civil Rights Act, in which we said, OK, African-Americans, you now have the right to buy into places like Levittown or Daly City or any of the places in between; we can no longer prohibit you from doing so. But that's an empty right because those homes are no longer affordable to working-class and lower-middle-class families. The white families who bought into them when they were working-class and lower-middle-class moved up the economic ladder as a result of their opportunity to live in places like that. And black families were prohibited from doing so. So simply giving people now the right to live anywhere they please is an empty right because the economics have changed so much in the last 50 years.

GROSS: Let's turn back the clock and go back to 1910. You've written a story of a black Yale Law School graduate who bought a home in a previously all-white neighborhood in Baltimore in 1910. And the Baltimore City government reacted by adopting a residential segregation ordinance restricting African-Americans to designated blocks. Would you explain that policy and the rationale behind it?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, the policy was again not only in Baltimore, although Baltimore was the first city to enact such an ordinance. But it was across the country. These ordinances typically prohibited blacks from buying homes on blocks that were predominantly white. They weren't necessarily all white because our urban areas were much more integrated at that time than they are today. And it prohibited whites from buying homes on blocks that were primarily black. In 1917, the Supreme Court found such ordinances unconstitutional, not because they discriminated against African-Americans but because they prevented property owners from selling homes to whomever they wanted.

GROSS: In other words, it was disadvantageous to white people. That's why.

ROTHSTEIN: That's right. They couldn't sell their property to anybody that they wanted. And cities around the country figured out ways of evading the Supreme Court decision. Some outright ignored them. In Baltimore, they reacted to the Supreme Court decision by not enforcing the ordinance anymore. But instead, the mayor of Baltimore set up a Committee on Segregation. And that Committee on Segregation was designed to use city agencies to enforce the boundaries that had been previously set up by the ordinance without using the ordinance itself. So health inspectors and building inspectors were charged with the responsibility of condemning properties that were sold to the wrong race. The Committee on Segregation also organized neighborhood associations around the city of Baltimore to circulate restrictive covenants. These were legal documents that were either attached to deeds or were covenants, contracts among neighbors that would prohibit African-Americans from moving into homes previously owned by whites. And this was all done by city government. So this is another example of policies that were not benign with unintended consequences but explicit racial policies designed to segregate Baltimore and every city in the country. St. Louis, where Ferguson took place, evaded the Supreme Court decision by establishing a zoning commission. If a neighborhood was populated with African-Americans, even if not all African-Americans, the St. Louis zoning commission permitted liquor stores and polluting industries, even houses of prostitution in those neighborhoods, in effect creating those neighborhoods as slums.

GROSS: Let me quote something that the mayor of Baltimore said. And I'm not sure if this was in 1910 or shortly after. But this pertains to the restrictive housing ordinance. He said, "blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into nearby white neighborhoods and to protect property values among the white majority." That pretty much sums it up (laughter)...

ROTHSTEIN: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: What the policies were intended to do. I mean, that's - quarantine black people in slums... I mean, that's a good summary.

ROTHSTEIN: Yes. And as I said, once that ordinance was declared unconstitutional, the mayor of Baltimore set up a committee of segregation to enforce the policy in other ways. I want to emphasize, this was public policy. This is what the lawyers call de jure segregation. This was a violation of the Fifth, Fourteenth and Thirteenth Amendments. And it's never been remedied. It established the boundaries of racial ghettos that persist to this day.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Rothstein. And he's spent several years studying the evolution of residential segregation around the country. He's a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Rothstein, who's a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute. And he's spent several years studying the evolution of residential segregation nationwide. We're talking about that, and we're talking about how that figures into communities like Ferguson and like West Baltimore.

So when you talk about the housing covenants that were signed, and in some cases people were pressured to sign them - give us an example of what - how one of those covenants might have read.

ROTHSTEIN: Well, there were two types of covenants. One was attached to the deed of a home which prohibited the owner of the home from reselling the home to a person who was not Caucasian. That was typical. Typically the covenant had an exception for domestic servants who were permitted to live in the home if they were not Caucasian. The covenants would prohibit anybody else from residing in a home; that is they couldn't rent to an African-American. So that was attached to the actual deed of the home, and those covenants are still in deeds around the country today. As I said, the federal government actually provided language, model language to builders that they could put in the first deeds of homes that they were selling in subdivisions.

The second kind of restrictive covenant was an agreement between neighbors, typically organized by a neighborhood association, in which any neighbor would have the right to sue, to have evicted, any other home - an African-American who purchased any other home in the neighborhood. So this was a joint conspiracy in effect, a legal conspiracy - unconstitutional though - to enforce the racial homogeneity of a neighborhood.

GROSS: So in other words, if I sign the covenant and if you sign a covenant and then I betrayed it by selling my home to an African-American buyer, you'd have the right to evict me.

ROTHSTEIN: That's correct...

GROSS: You and the other neighbors.

ROTHSTEIN: That's correct, and the state courts enforced these covenants everywhere in the country. There were Supreme Court decisions, state Supreme Court decisions in states all across the country upholding the alleged legality of these covenants, and state courts routinely evicted African-Americans who purchased homes in borderline neighborhoods that were white in an attempt to preserve racial homogeneity.

Let me give you an example of just how pernicious and pervasive this kind of thing was. I was reading a year or so ago some - an African-American newspaper in Los Angeles called The Eagle, The California Eagle from the 1940s, and there was an article in that newspaper describing how the state's attorney in Culver City, which is a suburb of Los Angeles, convened all of the air raid wardens in Culver City - during World War II there were air raid wardens on both coasts. In Los Angeles, they were designed to go door-to-door and instructed to tell homeowners and residents to turn off their lights in the evenings so as not to provide guidance for Japanese bombers. The same thing was true on the East Coast.

The state's attorney instructed the air raid wardens that when they went door-to-door to tell people to turn off their lights, they should also ask residents if they had signed a restrictive covenant, and if not, provide them with a model restrictive covenant that they could sign. This was the state's attorney organizing air raid wardens to enforce racial segregation at the time when their job should have been simply to protect residents from enemy bombs.

GROSS: Now, the Supreme Court did strike down racial covenants as being unconstitutional in 1948, but did they nevertheless continue after that?

ROTHSTEIN: Oh, they did continue after that. The Supreme Court, all it did in 1948 - it didn't say that the racial covenants were unconstitutional. All it said was state courts couldn't enforce them, so you could no longer sue your neighbor to have an African-American family evicted. But what real estate agents and neighborhood associations figured out soon afterwards was that while they couldn't sue to have them evicted, instead they would put in the racial covenants a penalty so that if residents sold a home to an African-American, the African-American no longer - could no longer be evicted in state court, but the neighbors would be entitled to damages, and those damages were often greater than the price of the homes.

That went on for another almost decade until the Supreme Court found that that was unconstitutional, and real estate agents continued to put these covenants in deeds. Builders continued to put these covenants in deeds long after they were no longer enforced by the Supreme Court, and they no longer needed to have the covenants in deeds because the practices then of the real estate agents and of the developers continued of refusing to sell homes to African-Americans even without the covenants. It wasn't until the 1970s that a federal appeals court actually said the covenants themselves were - couldn't be recorded by the county recorder of deeds.

GROSS: My guest is Edward Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute. After a break, we'll talk about how blockbusting, redlining, subprime loans and even the G.I. Bill helped to keep housing segregated. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. We're talking about how so many African-Americans ended up living in ghettos as a result of a century of public policy, on the local and federal levels, designed to isolate African-Americans from white people. Rothstein says, you can't really understand the anger that surfaced in West Baltimore or Ferguson, Miss., unless you understand this history. So let's pick up where we left off.

After World War II, with the GI Bill, veterans returning home had the option of buying, like, you know, relatively cheap and affordable housing, which led to a lot of working-class and middle-class homeownership that, as you pointed out earlier, led to a lot of equity and became the basis of a lot of upward mobility for working-class and upper-class people. And African-American families were denied that option. Like, what was it in the GI Bill that prevented black people from having that kind of access?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, the GI Bill followed the policies of the Federal Housing Administration. Many of the developments that I described before - the suburbanization developments - were financed, actually, by the Veterans Administration, not by the Federal Housing Administration. So they operated as one.

The Veterans Administration, for the GI Bill, used the same manuals that the FHA used for appraising homes and for valuing them and for requiring that they not be approved for loans if they were in integrated neighborhoods or if there were any African-Americans living even nearby. So the GI Bill functioned in the same way as the FHA.

It also functioned that way in job training and in job bills. Initially, the job training programs and the unemployment programs after World War II were run by state governments. They were federalized and then turned back to the states. State employment agencies listed jobs from employers that requested only white workers. And if an employer didn't specify, the state employment agencies would go out and solicit a racial qualification for the jobs that were being listed.

So African-Americans were not only prevented from participating in the housing boom that took place after World War II by government policy, but they were denied equal employment rights. And that was another reason why their incomes came to be so much lower. They were excluded from most of the jobs that built the middle class in the 1940s and '50s.

We talked about suburbanization. It wasn't just a housing program. It was an employment program. All of the construction jobs that built the suburbs in this country were closed to African-Americans because the construction unions prohibited African-Americans from being members. Now, this was not a private act on the part of the construction unions. Every one of these unions was certified as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for the workers and their trades by the National Labor Relations Board. The National Labor Relations Board did not stop certifying segregated unions or racially exclusive unions - it's not even that they were segregated; there were no blacks at all - didn't stop certifying those unions until 1964.

GROSS: Let's talk - when we're talking about racial segregation, let's talk about blockbusting and what that led to. Describe what blockbusting is.

ROTHSTEIN: Well, blockbusting was a practice of real estate agents. And I want to emphasize that real estate is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country, so these policies of real estate agents were endorsed, sometimes enforced, by state licensing boards - so another example of government action.

But blockbusting was a situation where real estate agents would come to a neighborhood where a single African-American might have purchased a home in violation of racial covenant. And nobody had enforced it, or maybe there was no racial covenant. They were generally in borderline areas, white neighborhoods that were close to black communities. And when that happened, real estate agents would try to convince whites in the neighborhood that more and more African-Americans were moving in and their property values would drop.

Now, this was based on the fact that there was an image of African-Americans as being slum dwellers, as being people who didn't maintain their homes, who brought disorder to a community when they lived there. Those slum characteristics, of course, were not a characteristic of African-American families but of government policy. In the ghettos, government policy, municipal policy, for example, denied adequate services. Garbage wasn't collected frequently. African-Americans were crowded into neighborhoods in the ghetto because so much other housing was closed to them. And as a result, housing prices in ghettos were much higher than similar housing in white areas. Rents were much higher than similar housing in white areas. Because they were not permitted to live in most areas, the prices of housing was higher. And so this created slum conditions. So when African-Americans managed to break out of those slums and buy a home in a neighboring area, whites could be persuaded that the slum conditions were going to be brought with them.

So the real estate agents would go into these neighborhoods and try to panic white families into selling their homes cheap to the real estate agents. They used techniques. They would recruit blacks from the ghetto to walk around the neighborhood pushing baby carriages. They would phone call families in the white area and ask for names that were stereotypically African-American. They would call a white family and ask if Johnny May (ph) was there, all intended to give the impression that this was rapidly turning into another black slum.

The white families who panicked would then sell their homes to the real estate agents or the speculators at prices far below what they were worth. The speculators would then turn around and resell the homes to African-Americans at far more than they were worth because of the restricted supply. And this policy was called blockbusting, and it was a policy that was condoned by state licensing boards throughout the country. The only way to prevent it would have been if state licensing boards removed the licenses of real estate agents who participated in these practices, but they never did. The National Association of Real Estate Boards had an ethical code which was followed by state licensing agencies and by real estate agent - commissions around the country that said it was unethical for real estate agents to sell homes to African-Americans in predominantly white neighborhoods. Of course, that ethical rule was violated in the case of blockbusting, but in outlying areas, it was enforced. And some real estate agents had their licenses challenged by state boards for violating this ethical rule of segregation.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Rothstein. He's a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and he spent years studying the evolution of residential segregation nationwide and economic disparity. So let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Rothstein. He is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. So one of the pieces of legislation to come out of the civil rights movement was the Fair Housing Act. What impact did that have on all of these, you know, like, local and federal policies that were enforcing segregation in housing?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, it had some impact. I certainly wouldn't say it had no impact. We have some middle-class integration today in metropolitan areas around the country as a result of the Fair Housing Act. As I mentioned earlier, it gives African-Americans the right to live in any community and African-Americans who have the means to do so can purchase homes in white neighborhoods, and they do so in small numbers.

GROSS: So we've been talking about legislation at every level of government. Banks and lending institutions have played a major role in the enforced housing segregation that you've been talking about. So let's talk a little bit about redlining. Would you describe what that is?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, redlining is the policy of banks not to issue mortgage loans in African-American neighborhoods. The redlining term comes from the fact that the maps that the banks use to determine where they will not issue loans because there's an African-American population were created by the federal government. They were created during the New Deal by The Home Owner's Loan Corporation. And it's called redlining because black neighborhoods were colored red on those maps. So again, this is a residue of government policy.

The Federal Housing Administration is the main culprit here. The reason that banks will not issue loans - or one of the main reasons that banks will not issue loans or did not issue loans in African-American neighborhoods was because the FHA would not insure them. And the FHA wouldn't insure them because the FHA's appraisal manuals told appraisers that loans were not worthy of - they were not secure if African-Americans were purchasing the homes.

So again this all - it's redlining and it's a bank policy, but it all stems from federal policy. Banks are very, very heavily regulated. There're inspectors who come to every bank that's making loans from the Federal Reserve Board from the - what was called once the Office of Thrift Supervision, from the Comptroller of the Currency. All of these regulators were complicit in this redlining policy. The Civil Rights Commission - the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held hearings in the 1960s. And William McChesney Martin, who was then the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, told the Civil Rights Commission that he approved of denying loans to African-Americans because his main concern was preserving property values and property values would fall if African-Americans bought homes. In 1961 or maybe '62 - I don't recall now - President Kennedy issued an executive order prohibiting federal agencies in the housing field from engaging in racial discrimination. But Federal Housing Administration offices around the country ignored the executive order. One Federal Housing Administration official testified before the Civil Rights Commission that he was not going to follow the executive order because he would lose market share. The Federal Housing Administration would lose market share if it couldn't enforce racial segregation.

GROSS: Before the housing bubble burst and the stock market collapsed, African-American home buyers were being targeted for subprime loans and so these are loans that, you know, usually had, like, a low teaser interest rate, but then the interest rate would rise and you'd be stuck with a much larger loan than you realized you were signing up for. And a lot of people couldn't pay those loans; they lost their homes. So can you talk a little bit about how African-Americans were targeted for these subprime loans?

ROTHSTEIN: Sure, there were a number of lawsuits filed against banks for their behavior during the housing bubble. One of them, it so happens, was from Baltimore County - Baltimore itself. Wells Fargo Bank was sued by some civil rights groups. And testimony in that suit in Baltimore was that the bank had set up a special sales unit of African-American salespeople in the bank whose job it was to go out to black churches and market these kinds of loans, refinancing loans, so that blacks would give up their existing mortgages for an initial low teaser rate, not realizing that the interest rate would later explode and that there would be enormous prepayment penalties if they tried to get out of it. But this was specifically targeted at African-American families.

GROSS: So how do you think the subprime loans targeted at African-Americans added to the chronic housing segregation in our country?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, many of the families who lost their homes as a result of foreclosures when they could not refinance these mortgages were pushed back into the ghetto. They lost - they were homeowners; they were pushed back into living in apartments and tenements in much denser neighborhoods. So it's reinforced the segregation of many urban areas. I mentioned earlier that black wealth is now about 5 percent of white wealth even though black income is 60 percent of white income. Before the subprime bubble burst, African-American wealth had risen to about 10 percent. But the subprime crisis pushed African-Americans way back so that many of the gains they had made in the previous years were lost.

GROSS: So I'm sure you watched the live coverage from Baltimore and Ferguson. And I wonder what goes through your mind emotionally and intellectually as you watch the peaceful protests and as you watch some of those protesters turn violent.

ROTHSTEIN: Well, you know, this is not new. These kinds of violent episodes have been persistent throughout our history since 1920 or so. There were a hundred such uprisings in 1967, all of which were provoked by similar police action. But when you get ghettos in which families are concentrated together with little opportunity - they're far away from jobs; there are few jobs available; unemployment rates are high; young people have little hope - you're going to get the kind of misbehavior on the part of young people that we see in Baltimore and again in Ferguson. And that misbehavior provokes police hostility and aggression, and then police aggression provokes more misbehavior. And it becomes a vicious cycle.

The way to prevent those things - in 1967 I mentioned there were a hundred of these of the - President Johnson appointed the Commission, the Kerner Commission to look into them. And the Kerner Commission reviewed all of the policies that I've just described and said, we're becoming a society of two nations, two societies, separate and unequal. We didn't follow any of the recommendations of the current commission in 1968 when the commission was - report was published. Every time we have some of these incidents, we recognize that the underlying problem is the lack of opportunity in ghetto communities. We say once we deal with the violence, then we'll turn to the bigger problem. We deal with the violence and never turn to the bigger problem, and so I think these kinds of conditions are going to continue, and we're going to see more Baltimores and more Fergusons as we have for the last 100 years.

GROSS: So several times during the course of our interview, you've have used the word ghetto. Ghetto, I think, is like an offensive word when used to pertain to African-American neighborhoods, and I think lot of the people who live in those neighborhoods take offense by the use of the word ghetto. Are you using it intentionally because you see those neighborhoods as been intentionally ghettoized by policy?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, one of the ways in which we forget our history is by sanitizing our language and pretending that these problems don't exist. We have always recognized that these were ghettos. A ghetto is, as I define it, a neighborhood which is homogenous and from which there are serious barriers to exit. That's the technical definition of a ghetto.

Robert Weaver, the first African-American member of a Cabinet, appointed by President Johnson as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, described many of the policies that I've described today in a book he published in 1948 called "The Negro Ghetto." The Kerner Commission referred to the ghetto. This is a term that we now no longer use because we're embarrassed to talk about it, and we need to confront our history and stop sanitizing our language and talk openly about what we've done as a nation and what we need to do to undo it. And we can't talk openly if we're going to use euphemisms instead of being explicit about what the reality is.

GROSS: Richard Rothstein, thank you so much for talking with us.

ROTHSTEIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the debut album by Chris Stapleton, who has written hits for country artists including George Strait and Tim McGraw. This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.