Hopping on public transportation in several cities, you might notice most of the people on that train or bus are all of a single race. Traveling in one direction or the other, the ethnicity of public transit clientele can change drastically. How did our cities become so segregated?

Many point to de facto segregation — segregation based on individual economic choices, like choosing who to sell a home to. Richard Rothstein, the author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, argues that de facto segregation is a myth. In fact, local and national governments played a major role in creating the divide.

Federally approved, unconstitutional housing materials began spreading as troops picked up and moved with their families after the Civil War. The federal guide to appraisers explicitly said they did not allow the loaning of land for the development of a white construction project if there was a black community nearby — the kind of developments that would have promoted integration.

In 1968, the Supreme Court acknowledged that these practices were unconstitutional and passed the Fair Housing Act, which on paper allowed African Americans to live wherever they chose including the suburbs. But in many suburbs, this was strongly discouraged, if not prohibited. When suburbanization began, many white families were incentivized by the Federal Housing Administration to move farther from large cities via federally subsidized housing, which was not available to black families living in the city. By the time African Americans were allowed to move to the suburbs, the cost was so high that working-class families could not join the suburban life.

This truth is still evident in Chicago, where Tonika Johnson, a photographer and the creator of the art exhibit Folded Map, began to investigate identical geographic neighborhoods between the North and Southside that were divided by racial lines. She invited “map twins” who lived at the same address, only with a North or South difference, to meet.

They discussed how they came to live where they did, as well as what was readily available to them in their neighborhoods. The differences, especially when it came to the financial value of their homes, was extreme. Rothstein believes housing inequity has still not been remedied and likely will not be until the problem is universally acknowledged. 

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