#116 Mar/Apr 2001

You Wouldn’t Fit Here

Let’s define segregation as a social harm rather than an inconvenient byproduct of individual preferences. We need alternatives for viable communities.

In Race in America: The Struggle for Equality, Patricia J. Williams, a legal scholar, recalls seeing an advertisement for a two-bedroom apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. The landlord agreed to meet her at the address to show the place. Williams, who is African American, arrived first. “I saw her catch sight of me as I sat on the doorstep. I saw her walk slower and slower, squinting at me as I sat in the sunshine. At ten minutes after three, I was back in my car driving away without having seen the apartment. The woman had explained to me that a ‘terrible mistake’ had occurred, that the apartment had been rented without her knowledge…” (p. 425).

Williams’s experience is a common one for people of color in all walks of life. Decades after the passage of federal fair housing laws, housing discrimination and racial segregation are alive and well in the United States. Many communities still operate under a strict “virtual apartheid,” and in some parts of the country, racially divided neighborhoods are even more prevalent than they were before civil rights legislation. Extensive regional and national studies have documented that minority home seekers receive less assistance than whites in finding housing that meets their needs and are more likely to be turned down for mortgage loans and home insurance than comparably qualified white applicants. Buyers of all races continue to be steered toward neighborhoods where their own ethnic groups are concentrated.

While many ethnic groups have encountered housing discrimination, no group has experienced the sustained high level of residential segregation that has been imposed on African Americans. Segregation has concentrated African Americans into disadvantaged neighborhoods characterized by higher crime rates, fewer public services, and lower housing values. It has restricted their access to job opportunities, information resources and political influence. Schools in segregated areas are plagued by high dropout rates and severe educational disparities that threaten the life chances of African-American children. Racial residential segregation is a primary cause of urban poverty and inequality in the United States.

Although many forces are responsible for this persistence of racial segregation, the role of communication is often overlooked. Since passage of the Fair Housing Act, polite social interaction is often used to carry the same ugly messages formerly stated directly, with entire conversations conducted as if something other than race is causing the denial of housing. These communication strategies have helped to preserve segregation where the law has tried to dismantle it.

History of Residential Segregation

Scholars track the institutionalization of racial separation to the early 1900s, when large numbers of blacks migrated from the rural South in search of factory jobs. When they tried to settle in the largely white urban areas of the North and the Midwest, they met with exclusion, intimidation and violence.

Whites in some cities boycotted and harassed businesses like boarding houses, hotels, and real estate firms that provided shelter to African Americans. Other whites established suburbs where they used zoning laws and exclusionary deeds to keep out people of color. Responding to these dynamics, real estate agents found it easiest and most profitable to steer home buyers and renters to neighborhoods where people of their own races were already concentrated.

Such steering was soon underscored by federal policies. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the Federal Housing Administration underwrote mortgages in segregated white neighborhoods, while directing lenders to turn down minority mortgages. Between 1930 and 1960, fewer than 1 percent of all mortgages in the nation were issued to African Americans. In the 1960s, urban renewal plans placed low-income housing projects in minority neighborhoods, concentrating the nation’s poorest residents in the same neighborhoods occupied by people of color.

The Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed overtly discriminatory market practices like exclusionary deeds, steering and redlining, but it had relatively little effect on established routines among real estate agents and lenders. Over the next two decades, despite increases in income, education and job status for minorities, housing patterns remained segregated. In the 1990s, despite modest changes in newer suburban neighborhoods in the South and West, segregation actually deepened in many cities. Between 1996 and 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted more than 80 cases of criminal interference with housing rights, including cross-burnings, shootings and fire-bombings.

Biased Brokers

Such acts of violence are not the primary way that segregation is reinforced in much of the country, however. Real estate sales and rental agents, mortgage lenders and insurers all have significant influence on the choices home buyers make. And despite the Fair Housing Act, race still influences their interactions with their customers.

First, there is direct discrimination. Minority home buyers receive less assistance than whites in finding housing that meets their needs, and are more likely to be turned down or overcharged for home loans and insurance than comparably qualified white applicants. Doug Massey and Nancy Denton describe in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass how racial minority customers are told that the unit they want to see has just been sold or rented, or they are shown only one advertised unit and told that no others are available.

At some real estate offices, Massey and Denton note, minority customers are “told that the selling agents are too busy and to come back later; their phone number may be taken but a return call never made; they may be shown units but offered no assistance in arranging financing; or they may be treated brusquely and discourteously in hopes that they will leave” (p. 98). National studies using matched pairs of testers have documented these actions at real estate firms and mortgage lenders around the country. Many of these abuses originate in the earliest personal interactions between sellers and buyers, or in the first informational materials home buyers confront.

Less directly abusive, but even more clearly perpetuating segregation is the practice of steering, whereby customers are strongly encouraged, both by what they are shown and by “commentary,” to buy or rent in single-race neighborhoods where they “fit in.” When consumers want to inspect housing in locations where they would be in a racial minority, some real estate agents try to discourage them through conversation. In Bloomington, IN, an agent warned an Asian woman and her white husband away from a house they wanted to buy because it was not in “a mixed neighborhood.” And a white woman in Ocean, NJ was assured by an agent that “this is a great neighborhood – there are none of them here.” Real estate salespeople often say they know other agents who discuss the racial makeup of neighborhoods with clients, but they refuse to discuss such practices in detail, fearful of backlash from those agents.

Research demonstrates that white buyers typically hear positive comments from agents praising neighborhoods and schools in mostly white areas, but they hear discouraging comments about neighborhood amenities and schools when a neighborhood’s population is more than 30 percent black. Black customers tend to hear little commentary – positive or negative – from agents about predominantly black neighborhoods, but they are invariably warned against buying in predominantly white areas because of the possible “trouble” they would face there.

Advertising Exclusivity

Newspaper real estate ads are a key source of information for home seekers, and they often contain discriminatory messages. The Federal Fair Housing Act forbids references to race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin in real estate advertising, but subtler messages of exclusion in photographs or text often get through. In some real estate markets, for example, the models shown in photographic ads for homes and apartment complexes are all white, and very blonde. Some have described neighborhoods “where Wally and the Beaver would feel right at home,” or homes built in “the style of Northern Europe,” available only to “a select few” or representing “a return to family values.”

These tactics have resulted in individual complaints and lawsuits. Some courts have ruled that using only white models in real estate advertisements sends a discriminatory message to other races. In one study, African-American and white respondents viewed groups of real estate ads with white models only and with a mix of black and white models. Typical responses to the all-white ads included: “Because the ‘actors’ are perceived to be all Europeans, I would question if African Americans would be welcome here,” and “From people pictured on posters, this apartment complex is ‘for white only.’”

In 1993, in partial settlement of a lawsuit, The New York Times began requiring that real estate ads containing photos of people be representative of the racial makeup in the New York metropolitan area. Some advertisers responded by removing all human figures from their ads. In 1994, the publishers of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News cautioned advertisers not to use “coded” text in ads, including “such words and phrases as traditional, prestigious, established and private community, which, when used in a certain context, could be interpreted to convey racial exclusivity.”

Data Labeling

Internet marketing sites and the practice of computer-assisted target marketing have added a new twist to communication about race and real estate. Many residential sales firms, including brands like Century 21 and Re/MAX, have established consumer web sites to attract customers, offering prospective home buyers information and advice from mortgage rates to moving tips. Some sites furnish “neighborhood profile” services, where consumers can type in the street address or zip code of a home and receive a description of nearby schools, crime rates, and property values. Or they may offer “neighborhood matching,” a service that allows relocating buyers to type in the zip codes of their current neighborhoods and find communities in other cities with comparably priced housing.

The demographic information on Internet real estate sites is provided by marketing services such as Lysias, Taconic Data, CACI Marketing Systems and Claritas. These firms combine demographic data from the U.S. Census with consumer spending research and package the information for easy use by commercial clients. Such firms pioneered “cluster marketing” techniques in the 1980s, analyzing the consumer habits of neighborhoods across the U.S. by zip code and then assigning them catchy nicknames like “Affluent Suburbia,” “Mid-City Mix,” and “Metro Singles.”

However, some of these profiles categorize neighborhoods not only by zip code and consumer behavior, but also by ethnic signifiers. For example, a profile offered by CACI Marketing Systems characterized one zip code as having mostly black residents who had not completed high school and “tend to purchase fast food and takeout food from chicken restaurants.” Claritas’ online “Hispanic Mix” neighborhood profile is decorated with a cartoon image of a brown-skinned mother shopping at a sidewalk market, and describes residents who are pro basketball fans and use money orders to pay their bills. MicroVision’s middle-income “City Ties” cluster (where residents are said to eat at chicken restaurants, smoke menthol cigarettes, and read Ebony magazine) is illustrated by a photo of a smiling black family with three children. Its upscale “Metro Singles” cluster (where residents are said to use sunburn remedies and have dental insurance) is illustrated by a blonde white woman reclining alone on a sofa.

In February 1999, the National Association of Realtors took a stand against the use of racial and ethnic demographic information on members’ real estate websites, but a number of firms continue the practice. These techniques have recently come under fire from community groups and citizens. ACORN, a nonprofit fair housing organization, has charged Wells Fargo/Norwest Mortgage with racial discrimination over the company’s Internet real estate site (which has since been taken down). Plaintiffs argued that the web site’s neighborhood profiles used “overt racial classifications” to discourage people from inspecting or buying homes in predominantly minority areas by exaggerating the desirability of areas deemed white occupied and the drawbacks of areas classified as minority occupied. The plaintiffs also claim the site’s neighborhood matching feature steered residents of predominantly minority zip codes to other minority zip codes, and referred residents of predominantly white zip codes to other white zip codes. (Ruth Isaac and ACORN vs. Norwest Mortgage, Civil Action 3:00-CV-989-L)

Fight Communication With Communication

The practices described above are common but hard to track, located more often by anecdotal example than by research. Although they are not as dramatic as acts of violence and not as quantifiable as redlining, they play a significant role in the persistence of housing discrimination. Together, they may be as discouraging to the growth of integrated communities as the easier-to-measure practices of discriminatory pricing, mortgage lending and insurance underwriting. However, these habits that support segregation can be broken by a concerted effort to bring them into the light of day.

First, let’s talk about what is going on. The absence of public dialogue is one of the conditions that allow racial discrimination to persist. Most individual home buyers see themselves not as change agents but as consumers whose decisions are merely individual choices that have no broader impact. Community organizations and coalitions play a key role in helping to raise public awareness of segregation and the contemporary problems it creates.

Second, community organizations can strengthen their case by partnering with researchers and journalists to more precisely document the scope of residential segregation in their communities. Academic researchers can teach local groups techniques for tracing social patterns and analyzing their impact in a community over time. Journalists can bring the issue of segregation to public attention. Rather than focusing their stories on individual acts of housing bias involving a few people, news organizations need to cover residential segregation as an issue story, highlighting the social processes and outcomes that affect thousands of people. Such efforts can begin to raise broader public support for changes in policy. Publishers and editors should also assess the racially exclusive advertising practices in their own real estate sections and pressure advertisers to change.

Finally, we must call on public officials at local, state and federal levels to address residential segregation through assertive social programs. Models for these already exist, such as the one developed by the Fund for an Open Society in Philadelphia. This plan calls for the creation of neighborhood enterprise zones dedicated to residential integration. It suggests the creation of mortgage subsidies and tax exemptions for homeowners, and recommends that participating localities be made eligible for dedicated funding for new construction and school support. The Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, works with residents of Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, to develop low-income housing that would allow some of Camden’s inner city residents to afford suburban housing. The South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race is also testing out some of these ideas.

Segregation is a stubborn problem. Although some communication practices have been used to circumvent fair housing and integration, others can help. Let’s talk frankly about the racial makeup of our neighborhoods. Let’s document and publicize what is going on. Let’s define segregation as a social harm rather than as an inconvenient byproduct of individual preferences. And let’s come up with alternatives for viable communities with quality of life for all.


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