The Color of Law: Creating Racially Segregated Communities

This lesson is the first lesson of the series The Color of Law: The Role of Government in Shaping Racial Inequity. In this lesson, students examine the local, state and federal policies that supported racially discriminatory practices and cultivated racially segregated housing.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • Explain how federal, state and local housing laws and policies advantaged white Americans throughout the 20th century, especially during the years from the Great Depression to the civil rights movement.
Essential Questions
  • Why are so many American communities segregated?




affluent [af-floo-uhnt] (adj.) having an abundance of wealth, property or other material goods; prosperous; rich (from dictionary.com)

appropriate [uh-proh-pree-yet] (verb) to set apart, authorize or legislate for some specific purpose or use (from dictionary.com)

blockbusting [blok-buhs-ting] (noun) the real estate practice of buying homes from white majority homeowners below market value, based on an implied threat of home prices falling during and after minority integration of neighborhoods (adapted from dictionary.com)

equity [ek-wi-tee] (noun) the monetary value of a property or business beyond any amounts owed on it in mortgages, claims, liens, etc. (from dictionary.com)

myth of self-segregation [mith uhv self seg-ri-gey-shuhn] (noun) the assertion that the residential isolation of low-income black children is now “de facto,” or the accident of economic circumstance, demographic trends, personal preference and private discrimination. But the historical record demonstrates that residential segregation is “de jure,” resulting from racially-motivated and explicit public policy whose effects endure to the present. (from The Economic Policy Institute)

racial zoning [rey-shuhl zoh-ning] (verb) a type of exclusionary zoning, racial zoning was the practice of enacting ordinances that designated separate living areas for black and white families. Ordinances prohibited African Americans from buying homes on blocks where white people were a majority and vice versa. (adapted from The Color of Law, pg. 44)

redlining [red-lahy-ning] (noun) a discriminatory practice by which banks and insurance companies, among other industries, refuse or limit loans, mortgages and insurance coverage within specific geographic areas with high populations of people of color (adapted from dictionary.com)

restrictive covenants [ri-strik-tiv kuhv-uh-nuhnts] (noun) lists of obligations that purchasers of property must assume, including what colors they use to paint their homes and what types of trees they plant in their yards; common clauses required homeowners never to sell or rent their houses to African Americans. (adapted from The Color of Law, pg. 78)



1.  To begin, discuss the essential question with students. Ask them, “Why are so many American communities segregated?” Have students write their responses anonymously on sticky notes and hang them on a wall somewhere in a room. Read some of the responses and tell students they will be asked to answer this question again at the end of the lesson. 

2.  Using the images and texts listed below, have students participate in Text Graffiti. Note: This teaching strategy instructs students to review a written text, but the same procedure can be applied to the linked zoning maps and images. Guide students’ thinking by asking them to predict what the maps and images represent and why they made those predictions. This can be done through a gallery walk, by using stations around the classroom or by projecting each image/text and having a whole-class discussion.

3.  Show students the short video (approximately 6:30 long) Why Are Cities Still So Segregated? (Note: There is a curse word in the first few seconds of the video. You can start the video at 0:22.) Then ask students to reflect on the following questions in a Fishbowl discussion: 

  • What is surprising to you about this video?
  • What is something you learned about housing discrimination from watching this video?
  • How can housing discrimination result in a ripple effect touching other areas of society?

4.  Ask students to read The Color of Law Lesson 1 Book Excerpts 1.1‒1.4 and answer the provided text-dependent questions. Teachers are encouraged to write their own Text-Dependent Questions to help students explore the history of housing discrimination. Students should visit stations for each excerpt in small groups, using the Say Something strategy in their groups to discuss responses and reactions to the texts. 

5.  Wrap up: Have students hold or hang up the text graffiti papers from the beginning of class. Then read or show students the definition of the “myth of self-segregation.” Using a Fishbowl, discuss with students why self-segregation is a myth, making connections to the texts they read during class. Have them reflect on what they wrote about the images and maps, what they learned and what they are still curious about. Ask them to work in pairs to use what they learned during the lesson to come up with new answers to the essential question: “Why are so many American communities segregated?”


Alignment to Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9‒10.1, 4, 7, 9, 10

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11‒12.1, 4, 7, 9, 10