The Color of Law: Developing the White Middle Class

This lesson is the third and final lesson of the series The Color of Law: The Role of Government in Shaping Racial Inequity. In this lesson, students examine policies that supported and cultivated the creation of the white middle class and the practices that excluded black and nonwhite people from economic development.
Grade Level


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

  • Explain how government policies affected the housing, employment and education choices available to individuals.
Essential Questions
  • What was the government’s role in creating the white middle class? 


bootstraps theory [boot-straps theer-ee] (noun) the belief that a person in the United States who works hard, assumes personal responsibility and maintains a strong moral center can accomplish anything (adapted from the NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education definition of “bootstrap narrative”)

census tract maps [sen-suhs trakt map] (noun) a map of an area containing census tracts (areas averaging 4,000 inhabitants) established for analyzing populations (adapted from U.S. Census Bureau)

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)

exacerbate [ig-zas-er-beyt] (verb) to make more violent, bitter or severe (from merriam-webster.com)

generational poverty [jen-uh-rey-shuhn-uhl pov-er-tee] (noun) the experience of individuals, families and communities where economic status remains in poverty for two or more generations (adapted from Portland State University, Multicultural Topics in Communications Sciences & Disorders)

race-neutral policies [reys noo-truhl pol-uh-sees] (noun) policies not based on people’s race or giving a special advantage to people of any race (adapted from the Cambridge Dictionary definition of “race-neutral”)



1.    Using the Why Black Americans Face More Obstacles video clip (start at 15:05-17:08) and the We’re Coming to Get Our Check video clip, have students use the Critical Listening Guide. (Note: This teaching strategy can be used for a variety of media formats.) After an initial viewing, play the clips a second time. As students watch, have them reflect on the following questions:

  • How does Dr. King debunk the myth of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps”?
    (Possible answers: Dr. King points out the existence of inequalities that prevent African Americans from having a fair opportunity to earn a decent living and support themselves. He also points out that white Americans never fully lifted themselves up alone, but had assistance from the government.) 
  • What does he mean when he says that African Americans don’t have “boots”?
    (Possible answers: Dr. King is using the imagery of the boots to highlight that white people in America were given subsidies, aid and opportunities to help them establish themselves in employment and society to create wealth. White people had access to better housing, education and jobs, and, therefore, had “boots,” or an assisted starting point.)

2.    Ask students to read The Color of Law Lesson 3 Book Excerpts 3.1- 3.5 handout and answer the provided text-dependent questions. Teachers are encouraged to write their own Text-Dependent Questions to help students explore how governments supported the creation of the white middle class. Provide the best structure for your students that best supports their comprehension of these excerpts. That might be reading together at first and then setting up the excerpts at stations, having students rotate around the room in small groups. Use Save the Last Word for Me to have students reflect on portions from each passage that stand out to them. 

3.    Using figures 1, 3, 4 and 5 from Pew’s Neighborhood Poverty and Household Financial Security Issue Brief January 28, 2016, have students participate in Thinking Notes. Have students think about how the charts reflect what they learned from The Color of Law Book Excerpts handout. When creating a system of symbols for the Thinking Notes teaching strategy, consider the following questions: 

  • What is the relationship between concentrated poverty in a neighborhood and other factors that might negatively affect a person’s ability to accumulate wealth?
  • How does a lack of wealth accumulation and living in an area of high poverty affect other areas that would be associated with a higher standard of living? 
  • How would discrimination in housing, employment and government benefits and programs have an effect on these outcomes?
  • Why would just living in a neighborhood with diverse incomes impact your wealth, and how is it related to systemic discrimination in gaining employment and accumulating wealth?

4.     Wrap up: Using this image from 1942 in which demonstrators protested the St. Louis Small Arms Ammunition Plant’s refusal to hire black workers and The Color of Law Book excerpt 3.5, have students participate in Say Something. Use the questions below to scaffold student thinking:

  • Do you believe the best way for people to accumulate wealth is for them to worker harder and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”? Why or why not?
  • In what ways do the texts force you to acknowledge something you were previously unaware of?

5.  To close, have students anonymously record their answer to the essential question “What was the government’s role in creating the white middle class?” on a sticky note and place it on a wall in the room. Read the answers out loud and through discussion have the class reach a consensus on an answer together. Ask them to reflect on how the world as they see and experience it is the result of systems and policies that have been enacted for generations: How does what they have learned about this topic challenge their understanding of income, employment and inequality?


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

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