The reassuring story of desegregation in America has gotten a lot of play these last few years. Black migration to suburbs and an influx of immigrants, we're told, have relegated all-white neighborhoods to the ash heap of history. It’s “THE END OF THE SEGREGATED CENTURY,” one recent study breathlessly reported.
The real story is more complicated. All-white neighborhoods may have gone extinct, but all-black neighborhoods have not. In Los Angeles, some low-diversity, predominantly white neighborhoods became more diverse between 1990 and 2000, but every one of them remained predominantly white. Increased racial diversity, in other words, does not equal desegregation.
But what’s kept segregation from falling? A new study from the Department of Housing and Urban Development offers part of the answer. Housing discrimination still exists, no longer in laws or obvious practices but in subtler forms that are harder to defeat.
Fifty years ago, blacks got denied appointments with real estate agents, or told by those agents that advertised units weren’t available. Housing discrimination then was overt and accepted.
Now, the most blatant kinds of unfair treatment have disappeared. But in their place, new and less conspicuous forms of discrimination linger, no less dangerous than their predecessors.
The HUD study matched thousands of white potential buyers and renters with equally qualified minority test customers. Then both members of each matched pair responded to home ads. Minorities in the study got meetings with real estate agents, but once there they didn’t learn about as many housing options as their white counterparts. Blacks looking to buy a home, for example, got told about 17% fewer available properties than equally qualified white buyers did. Asians were shown 19% fewer homes than whites. Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in the rental market all had their opportunities restricted relative to white customers.
Even within minority groups, racial difference seemed to be the factor that drove discrimination. Minority renters whose race was easily identifiable based on a name or pattern of speech were denied more opportunities than minorities who could have been mistaken as white.
This isn’t an innocuous inconvenience. When their choices are constrained, minority buyers are less likely to penetrate markets from which they’ve traditionally been excluded. Minority buyers also don't have the same chance of locating a home in an ideal school district or finding the most affordable option. The search for housing simply costs more when real estate agents aren’t as forthcoming.
The reasons for this phenomenon aren’t clear from the study, but it’s possible that unconscious stereotypes are driving differences in treatment. If that’s the case, minority buyers may suffer in ways that specifically limit their access to more desirable neighborhoods. Minorities may be shown fewer homes because agents assume they can’t afford the prices that white buyers can (even if their income profiles are identical), or because they don’t fit the traditional racial profile of a particular neighborhood.
These biases are probably even more pronounced in the real world, where most buyers are only borderline qualified for their desired properties, not highly qualified like subjects in this study were. Stereotypes tend to operate even more powerfully on the marginal cases of minority customers who can only barely afford the property, this 1996 study showed. They get turned away, while white customers in the same position get the benefit of the doubt. In this way, minorities are set apart, even if there’s no hard-and-fast rule encouraging it.
What makes this newer kind of discrimination so dangerous is that it’s invisible -- and therefore harder to fight. Instead of laws banning blacks, there are zoning requirements mandating expensive Spanish tile roofs, or minimum acreage zoning ordinances. Last year, I wrote about a mixed-race Connecticut suburb that built a 12-foot-tall fence around largely black public housing projects under the pretense of concerns about crime. Racism these days is sometimes hidden in codes and subtle real estate practices, but it’s still there, and it may still help dictate where minorities buy homes.