Howard Husock reviews for Barron’s a new book, The Color of Law, that explores government’s role in promoting housing segregation.

In the conventional view, if government ever failed in the battle against racial segregation, the failure has mainly been through sins of omission rather than commission. In this thorough and unsettling narrative, subtitled A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein, an associate at the Economic Policy Institute, informs us that the conventional view is sadly mistaken. All levels of government—federal, state, and local—played a decisive role in fostering racial segregation.

In 1933, as the New Deal got under way, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes launched the nation’s first federal public housing program. His Public Works Administration set out to provide apartments for both blacks and whites, but notably, not together. Some projects were to be set aside for blacks and others for whites, except for a relative few that included both, though in separate buildings.

The Ickes rule set the stage for a long series of government-led rules that reinforced and, in many cases, created such segregation, not just in the Jim Crow South but throughout the country. The 1949 Housing Act permitted the construction of racially segregated public housing. As a result, in Boston, the Mission Hill project was 98% white, while the nearby Mission Hill Extension was similarly black.

Nor was public housing the only program operated in an explicitly race-conscious manner.