Archive for scholarship
Today in New York City and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage. What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.
Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.
Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.
Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.
And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.
Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.
For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.’” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.
As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.
From the archive (originally posted 03-17-2009)
This is a talk at the University of Rhode Island by Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (of Duke University). It’s long (about an hour, then half an hour of questions), but well worth it:
Malcolm X would often tell his followers, “Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.” Although newer models look much different than older ones, the fact of the matter is a Cadillac is still a Cadillac. Likewise, racism is still racism, regardless of how it has changed throughout the years. The works of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Joe Feagin, among others, have shown that racism is about how racial categories are central organizing principles of social circumstances and opportunities. Racial groups atop the hierarchy are enumerated numerous advantages, both symbolic and material, while other groups are disadvantaged. In the modern era, the racial rule persists in ways that are institutional, covert, and seemingly nonracial, but no less effective. I argue that the utilization of lotteries to finance public services, like education, exemplifies a new model of this racism.
In a neo-liberal age characterized by disinvestment of the welfare state, lotteries have become a viable alternative for governments to generate hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. Politicians are generally receptive to them, particularly when confronted with budgetary shortfalls, because they raise huge tax revenues for social services like education with little resistance from the public. Lotteries rely upon voluntary participation, but as Charles Clotfelter and Phillip Cook argue, they are nonetheless forms of taxation because these revenues carry the same value regardless of how the state collects and spends them. Often times, however, lottery revenues are not generated equally across social groups. Some groups contribute more to social services than do others though the lottery tax. When these revenues are redistributed in a way that transfers money from one community to another, one community’s fiscal gain comes at another’s expense. So the question stands: Who plays and who pays?
Recently, I completed a study that takes up this very question. Using Chicago as a case study, I simultaneously compared the generation and allocation of lottery revenues. My findings show that this money-exchange process is organized along lines of race (and class). The lottery is a racially regressive source of revenue (it collects much more money from blacks than whites), but the state spends these revenues on education without considering from whom they originated. When this occurs, resources are transferred from communities of color and spread across all communities.
After auditing financial records from the Illinois Department of Revenue, I found that lottery sales vary considerably by a community’s racial and class background. (See Figure 1 for an overview of bivariate statistics showing this pattern.) Consider, for example, one illustrative comparison of a few communities of relatively equal population size. During the early 2000s, communities of color and working class communities such as Avalon Park, Calumet Heights, Roseland, and South Shore generated well over $20 million of lottery sales annually, whereas white communities and middle- to upper-class communities like North Center and Lakeview generated only $4 to $5 million. Such trends remained consistent after performing regression analysis, in which I was able to test for independent and simultaneous effects of race and class while controlling other influential variables.
Once lottery sales are generated, nearly a third of every dollar is earmarked for public education in Illinois (see Figure 2). During the 2000s, the lottery’s contribution to state education amounted to nearly $600 million or more per year or roughly 10 percent of the state’s annual education budget (see Figure 3). It is placed in a general fund along with other sources of revenue and allotted to school districts based on three criteria: property tax levels, average daily attendance, and poverty levels within a district (see Figure 4). Illinois lawmakers intentionally designed the formula this way to ensure poorer districts receive more assistance than wealthier counterparts. Progressive intentions do not translate into progressive outcomes though, especially when lottery revenues are redistributed without considering from whom they originated.
In Chicago, money exchange between the lottery and education represents public policy that circulates money from those who need it most and spreads it around to everyone. This is especially true when lottery tax contributions outweigh other sources of money for education (e.g., property taxes). Under the worst circumstances communities of color are burdened with subsidizing public education, a service everyone is entitled. Public policy that circulates money in this way captures one mechanism for reproducing racially inequitable distributions of capital. Therefore, let us call this new Cadillac for what it is: Racism.
~ Kasey Henricks is a Ph.D. Student of Sociology at Loyola University Chicago and current Student Representative of the American Sociological Association’s Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities. Contact can be directed to him at email@example.com.
An extensive new research study provides compelling evidence that lighter skin color is strongly associated with receiving a lighter prison sentence. The research is presented in a new article called, “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders,” and is published in The Social Science Journal (Volume: 48, Issue: 1, Pages: 258-250). The study’s authors, Jill Viglione, Lance Hannon, and Robert DeFina, are researchers at Villanova University.
To conduct this study, the researchers examined the records of 12,158 women incarcerated in North Carolina prisons between 1995 and 2009. The North Carolina Department of Corrections tracks certain information about each inmate to faciliate prisoner identification. This information includes inmate hair color, eye color, height, weight, and body build. Most relevant to this study, skin tone is also recorded. Light skin tone is assigned a code of 1, and dark skin tone is assigned a code of 0.
Using statistical analysis, researchers were able to “control for” (or, hold constant) factors such as prior record, conviction date, prison misconduct, and being thin, as well as whether the woman was convicted of homicide or robbery since these crimes usually carry lengthy prison sentences. With regard to prison sentences, their results indicate that women deemed to have light skin are sentenced to approximately 12% less time behind bars than their darker skinned counterparts. The results also show that having light skin reduces the actual time served by approximately 11%.
The study confirms other research that shows similar results for Black men, that is, that the lighter skin color, the lighter prison sentences (e.g., Gyimah-Brempong, K. and Price, G. N., “Crime and Punishment: And Skin Hue Too?” American Economic Review, (2006), 96; 2, pages 246-250).
This research also also confirms the common knowledge in much of the black community about lighter skin color. When Harry Reid “inartfully” pointed out that Obama had a better chance at being elected to high office because of his lighter skin, it was Colin Powell who agreed with Reid.
The reality is that lighter skin color makes navigating a racist society easier.
In a recent post in Psychology Today, Satoshi Kanazawa wrote an incendiary post titled “Why are African American Women Less Physically Attractive than Other Woman.”
In Kanazawa’s post he purports that black women are categorically and scientifically less attractive than men and women of other racial groups, including black men. His “findings” are based on Ad Health (a longitudinal study funded by the US to analyze “adolescent health outcomes”) interviewers’ “objective” ranking of the attractiveness (on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1=very unattractive and 5 =very attractive) of white, black, Asian, and Native American Ad health participants.
Kanazawa does not specify the race and background of the Ad Health interviewers.
Kanazawa takes as fact the rankings of the Add Health interviewers and based on their opinions he purports that indeed black women are the most unattractive group of individuals regardless of sex and race. Kanazawa concludes his argument stating:
The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone. Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races, and testosterone, being an androgen (male hormone), affects the physical attractiveness of men and women differently… In contrast, women with higher levels of testosterone also have more masculine features and are therefore less physically attractive. The race differences in the level of testosterone can therefore potentially explain why black women are less physically attractive than women of other races, while (net of intelligence) black men are more physically attractive than men of other races.
Kanazawa’s argument is of course baseless and there is no scientific evidence to support his notion that black women have more testosterone than other races of women. The perception of Kanazawa and the Ad Health interviewers is a direct reflection of the historical social construction of black women (and whites) by elite white men, such as Thomas Jefferson and Georges Cuvier. This is a society historically constructed by elite white men, whereby their notion of beauty is treated as the irrevocable truth. A socially created “truth,” that has not only been accepted by whites, but also by some people of color. As far back as the 15th and 16th centuries, European travelers and scientists have defined black women as innately inferior to white women in beauty, sexuality, and femininity. These early European travelers often defined black women as masculine and thus fit for the hard life of slavery.
My recent research examining 134 contemporary white men’s perspectives of black women reveals the deep seated racist and sexist frame that many white men operate from as it relates to black women. This is a frame that unfortunately has been adopted by some people of color. Overwhelmingly the white male respondents in the study, rooted in the historical social construction of black women, found black women only attractive if they met a white normative standard. Those black women considered physically unattractive were those with traits defined as “black,” such as, coarse” or “nappy” hair; “black” facial features, “big lips” and “wide noses”; dark skin; and “larger” and “disproportionate” body shapes (using the language of the participants).
For example, one respondent in his 20s stated the following about black women and the standard of beauty:
There are some black women who are attractive. And they aren’t full black. The only black women I find attractive are a mix of black and [E]uropean, black and [L]atino, or black and [A]sian. They end up with the tan complexion, and hair that doesn’t look frizzled or like a brillo pad.
Similarly, another respondent in his 50s stated the following about black women and attractiveness:
I think black women’s features are too extreme; they are too dark, and they usually are much too large for my tastes. The black women I have know[n] are very aggressive and have terrible attitudes…The only black women I have found even marginally attractive are smaller, lighter-skinned black women with nice rear ends. ala Beyonce.
Another respondent, an older working-class male, articulated one of the most racialized and gendered social constructions of black women, when he stated:
“I tend to read African features as somewhat masculine. The ‘blacker’ the person, the less femininity I tend to see.”
Whereas the other respondents alluded to black or too-black features as a negative “extreme” that indicates unattractiveness, this respondent articulated that perceived unattractiveness as a sign of masculinity. His assertion that black features on black women are masculine is rooted in the deeply racialized and gendered construction of the black female body, which includes the firm denial of femininity, beauty, and womanhood.
Hence, it is no surprise that people like Kanazawa hold such negative perceptions of black women’s beauty as irrevocable fact. Kanazawa and the Ad health interviewers have adopted a deep seated frame of reference where whiteness and white defined notions of beauty are so deeply entrenched that they are not recognized as the racist and sexist constructions that they are. For them and a large proportion of this global world it is simply the unquestioned norm.
There’s a growing body of evidence that implicates racism in a variety of negative health consequences. Yet, the research on ‘health disparities and race’ neither focuses on whiteness nor on the ways that racism plays a role in health.
The Health Disparities Industry. Much of public health is driven by a concern with, and research on, ‘health disparities.’ If you’re not familiar with this field (or, subfield), it works like this:
“The literature on racial disparities in health by definition involves comparisons across groups defined by some racial classification system. Perhaps the most common of these comparisons take the form of the following general proposition: [Black/Hispanic/Native American] [children or adults] have higher rates of [the condition, disease, or 'disability' under investigation] than whites, primarily because of [explanatory variable]” (Daniels and Schultz, 2006, p.97).
There is a vast amount of scientific literature, and a number of federal agencies, built on this formulation. The equation is always the same: measure some health outcome (rates of heart disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS) in “minority” populations and compare it to the rates in the white population. Don’t misunderstand me. I think it’s a good thing, indeed an important thing, to focus on the health of folks who are black and brown because they carry a disproportionate burden when it comes to health. And, black and brown folks endure less than equal care when they encounter the health care system. Both these – health and health care – deserve attention from scholars, activists and those in public policy.
In a recent article critical of the health disparities industry, Shaw-Ridley and Ridley chart the scope of this industry and question the ethics of it. The problem is that there’s a lot that remains unexamined in the ‘health disparities’ framework.
Whiteness & The White Racial Frame in Health Disparities. Defining whiteness has been a central project of the construction of what it means to be American. What it means to be “white” is built into the U.S. Census. This history is the subject of a recent book by Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People. She observes that:
“Until the 1960′s, there were two racial dialogues going on the United States. One was more or less Southern, and that was black-white. The other had to do with various kinds of white people.”
The fact that white people have dominated the U.S. since its founding has also meant that they (we) have shaped the very way that we view reality (e.g., everything from laws, relationships, media, discourse,) in the U.S. This shaping of how we ‘frame’ things is referred to by Joe Feagin as ‘the white racial frame.’ The basic idea of the white racial frame is as follows:
The North American system of racial oppression grew out of extensive European exploitation of indigenous peoples and African Americans. It has long encompassed these dimensions: (1) a white racial framing of society with its racist ideology, stereotypes, and emotions; (2) whites’ discriminatory actions and an enduring racial hierarchy; and (3) pervasively racist institutions maintained by discriminatory whites over centuries. White-generated oppression is far more than individual bigotry, for it has from the beginning been a material, social, and ideological reality. For four centuries North American racism has been systemic–that is, it has been manifested in all major societal institutions.
Even though as Painter and Feagin note that whiteness and the white racial frame are central to the the American social and political context, these are little remarked upon within the literature on racial disparities in health outcomes. Indeed, the white racial frame permeates the research on race and health, and in particular, the research on ‘health disparities.’
The usual construction of ‘health disparities’ research constructs whiteness in two ways:
“First, it establishes a comparison between whites as a referent group and some ‘other’ group whose health is evaluated in comparison to that of whites. In an Ideal world, such comparisons may demonstrate arenas in which health outcomes do not differ by race, challenging ideas of racial group difference. If, however, funders are less likely to support research in which susbstantial racial differences are not apparent, or if publishers are less likely to publish articles that find no statistically significant differences….the literature will reinforce racial health differences while minimizing similarities… (Daniels and Schultz, 2006, p.97).
The comparison group in this research is always whites, which puts those who are not white in a “one down” position. The question as it’s framed in this research is always “What’s wrong with this [non-white] group? What’s happening that their health outcomes are ‘disparate from’ [not as good as] the health outcomes of whites?” The second way that that health disparities research constructs whiteness is through:
“….the use of racial categories and comparisons with no consistent foundation fo rthe theorizing, understanding, or interpreting observed racial differences (or their absence) in health outcomes provides space for a wide range of potential explanations. Each of these ‘explanations’ implicity or explicitly constructs both race and whiteness. “ (Daniels and Schultz, 2006, pp.97-8)
The overwhelming majority of research on ‘health disparities’ never examines whiteness nor implicates the actions of white people in this equation. This may be changing, however. Very recent research by Blodorn and O’Brien (of Tulane University, “Perceptions of Racism in Hurricane Katrina-Related Events: Implications for Collective Guilt and Mental Health Among White Americans) examines the implications of health disparities on whites. This is a rare focus in this research.
Racism. Contrary to the passive voice construction of most ‘health disparities’ literature, there are indications in the literature that there are actors responsible for at least some of the racial inequality contributing to the racial inequality in health outcomes. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there’s an increasing amount of evidence in the scientific literature that supports the claim that racism is a contributing factor to ill health. The pernicious sleight-of-hand in the ‘health disparities’ literature is that most of this research focuses on “perceptions” of racism among black and brown folks, but none of this research (at least none that I’ve found) acknowledges the reality of racism nor does it address those who are the perpetrators of racism in contemporary American society.
What Needs to Change. Clearly, there are unequal health outcomes that need to be addressed (see for example, Glady Budrys, Unequal Health: How Inequality Contributes to Health or Illness). On almost every measure, those in our society who are Black, Latino or Native American will die sooner than those who are white. For almost every disease, such as cancer and diabetes, those who are Black, Latino or Native American are more likely to contract the disease than whites, and once the disease is contracted, more likely to die from it.
This is one of the many costs of racism in our society and it must change.
However, looking only at those who must pay these costs as the source for changing these mechanisms of inequality is misguided. We need to begin to critically examine those who hold the most power and resources in society, that is at white people, for the ways that they contribute to and benefit from the inequality in health outcomes.
Reading newspapers is, as Benedict Anderson (1991) observed, one of the primary ways that people imagine themselves part of a community, whether that’s a nation, small town or a high school. This has not changed as the news has moved to increasingly online forms of distribution (Riley, et al., 1998, “Community or Colony: The Case of Online Newspapers and the Web,” JCMC 4(1), page 0). There were certainly racialized (and racist) messages in the discourse of news in traditional print (and broadcast) media. For evidence of this, see Teun Van Dijk’s classic, Racism and the Press, Routledge 1991, and Peter Teo’s more recent “Racism in the News,” Discourse & Society January 2000 11(1): 7-49). Alongside these old forms, the Internet has helped foster some new manifestations of race and racism in online news and sports.
Post Your [expletive] Comment Here. As online news has opened up the range of sources available, there’s a growing body of research that looks at online news consumption. See, for example, this review article by Mitchelstein and Boczkowski (New Media & Society, November 2010 12(7):1085-1102). This has had unintended consequences in terms of racism. Around 2004, the online arms of many U.S. newspapers opened their websites for comments. Today, some seven years into this experiment, many news sites have abandoned the practice of allowing comments because of the proliferation of offensive comments, many of them racist. In an interview in September, 2010, Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star responded to questions about racist comments online this way:
“We’ve seen comments that people would not make in the public square or any type of civic discussion, maybe even within their own families. There is no question in my mind that the process, because it’s largely anonymous, enables people who would never speak up on Main Street to communicate their thoughts.”
The online arm of The Indianapolis Star employs moderators, people whose job it is to read all the comments posted online and then delete individual racist comments. On some stories that editors expect will generate racist comments, the entire comments section is disabled beforehand, a practice shared by a growing number of newspapers.
The Tragedy of the Commons. The presence, indeed the preponderance, of racist comments in the public sphere highlight a problem that Howard Rheingold has referred to as a “classic tragedy of the commons dilemma.” The tragedy of the commons dilemma (first described by Garrett Hardin in 1968) is a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. The problem with comments online is, as Rheingold describes it, one in which “flamers, bullies, bigots, charlatans, know-nothings and nuts in online discourse take advantage of open access to other people’s attention” (Rheingold, Smart Mobs, 2002, p.121). In other words, those who are posting the offensive, expletive-filled comments are spoiling the comments section for everyone else.
Documenting Backstage Racism Online: The “Fighting Sioux” Study. So far, few researchers have taken on the task of analyzing racist comments. One study that has systematically looked at the way comments in online forums of news sites foster and reproduce racism (Steinfeldt, J., et al. (2010) ‘Racism in the Electronic Age: Role of Online Forums in Expressing Racial Attitudes about American Indians’, Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 16(3):362-371). In their study of over 1,000 posts related to University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo used for their athletic team, Steinfeldt and colleagues found that a critical mass of online forum comments represented disdain toward American Indians by providing misinformation, perpetuating stereotypes, and expressing overtly racist attitudes toward Native Americans.
The researchers explained their findings through the framework of two-faced racism (Picca & Feagin, 2007). Drawing on Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of the presentation of “front stage” and “back stage” performances of the self, Picca and Feagin developed the concept of two-faced racism to explain the hundreds of thousands of diary entries from white college students in which they document the ways that whites perform tolerance in public, mixed-race settings and explicit racism in private, white-only spaces.
The concept of two-faced racism seems especially useful for explaining the tragedy of the commons dilemma created by racist comments online. Those who post these comments may be used to thinking of the “back stage” as a fairly welcoming space for such remarks. The apparent anonymity of online commenting tends to blur the public and private, giving those who post comments the allure of “back stage” comfort and familiarity when, in fact, they are presenting their self in the “front stage” by posting online.
Online Reputation: Tainted by Racism? One of the hot button topics among people writing and thinking about the Internet is “online reputation.” Online reputation systems, like those used on eBay where users rate each other on basic trustworthiness within the terms of the site, are a central feature of how online business is able to operate efficiently. It’s a way of countering the corrosive effects of online anonymity. In reality, we know that online anonymity is an illusion in many ways, as increasingly sophisticated software keeps track of our identity and our preferences as we move between websites.
There’s a fairly new site that offers a clever twist on online reputation. The site is called “PWSNT” which is an acronym for “People Who Said [the N-word] Today,” with the tag line, “every morning, the hottest, freshest screenshots of white people using the n-word.” Just as the name of the site promises, it posts the photo and full name of people who have used the n-word in their social networking site profile.
The site is problematic in various ways (e.g. it routinely uses language like “retard” and engages in fat-shaming) but it’s an interesting strategy for interrupting the unchecked flow of “back stage” racism flowing onto the “front stage” of public profiles. It’s still too early for any sort of systematic research on what sort of effect this might have on one’s reputation online, but I suspect that research is just around the next corner.
In the pre-Internet era, people used analog methods like word-of-mouth referrals, printed newspaper ads and bulletin boards notices attached with pushpins to find housing and roommates. With the Internet, people increasingly turn to sites like Craigslist (a free bulletin board service) or Roommates.com (a fee-based roommate-matching service). The question is: do roommate matching sites facilitate racial discrimination in housing? The harder question is: if users on the sites engage in racial discrimination, what is the responsibility of the sites’ owners?
Isn’t that illegal? Yep. Housing discrimination based on race is illegal in the U.S. Racial discrimination in housing in the United States was officially made illegal by the Civil Rights Act of 1968. That law is currently referred to as the Fair Housing Act. Yet, housing discrimination based on race continues to exist.
There’s some excellent research and activism on this type of racism in what are called “housing discrimination audits.” These are tests by those seeking to enforce Fair Housing laws. These kinds of audits take a couple of different forms, but basically they involve sending matched pairs of people (or couples) with identical credentials but different by race to rent or buy housing. If people are treated differently based on race in these audits, then action can be taken against them. There’s an excellent (if a bit dated, from 1993) video from ABC News’ show 20/20, “True Colors,” where a white guy and a black guy both try to rent an apartment (and get a job) in St. Louis, Missouri and lots of covert racial discrimination gets captured on hidden camera.
Why is Housing Such a Big Deal? Racial discrimination continues to be a serious problem with far-reaching consequences. Housing discrimination remains key mechanism for maintaining racial segregation, and along with it, a host of other deleterious social ills (Massey and Denton, American Apartheid, Harvard UP, 1993). This is not simply the legacy of historical discrimination, but a current and persistent issue in the contemporary U.S. with far-reaching consequences. For evidence of this, see John Yinger’s Closed Doors, Opportunities Lost: The Continuing Costs of Housing Discrimination (Sage, 1995). In lots of really significant ways, the racial inequality in education, jobs, and health have their roots in racially segregated housing. So, if we could address housing discrimination and segregation, lots of other dimensions of inequality might be ameliorated.
So… is the Internet Helping or Hurting? In a lot of ways, the Internet can help combat racial discrimination in housing. There’s a lot of information online that helps people understand their rights to fair housing, like this site by La Raza Centro Legal. Now, you can even go online and file a complaint if you were discriminated against in trying to find housing. That’s the good news and an instance in which the Internet is helping.
The bad news is that there’s growing evidence that people are using the Internet to perpetuate racial discrimination in housing. For example, ads for housing on Craigslist rather routinely include language about race, a seeming violation of the Fair Housing Act. Some civil rights lawyers in Chicago sued Craigslist for allowing this practice (they flagged over 200 ads that were problematic under the Fair Housing Act). In March, 2008, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Craigslist in that case, basically arguing that if an ad appeared in the Chicago Tribune that said “No Minorities” it would be illegal and the Tribune would be held accountable for it, but if that same ad appears online, Craigslist faces no liability. Instead, Judge Easterbrook ruled that Craigslist was protected under the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This is clearly a way in which the Internet is hurting the cause of fair housing by giving Craigslist a blank check to undermine the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
FHA vs. CDA: Housing Discrimination Collides with Free Speech. The leaders in the emerging field of research about housing discrimination online are primarily legal scholars grappling with the often contradictory implications of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CDA is relevant because of the part of that law referred to as Section 230, which has been interpreted to say that operators of Internet services (ISP’s) are not to be construed as publishers (and thus not legally liable for the words of third parties who use their services).
An important test case in all this is the lawsuit brought by the Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley against Roommates.com, LLC,. The Fair Housing Council alleged that the popular roommate-matching site was engaging in racial discrimination. Unlike the ruling in the Craigslist case, the Ninth Circuit has according to one scholar “put out the welcome mat for fair housing suits against roommate-matching websites.” The authors of this law review article, Diane Klein and Charles Doskow, write that the judge in this case found that:
“the Communications Decency Act does not provide immunity to housing websites under § 3604(c) of the Fair Housing Act (FHA). [And] housing websites should be held to the same standard as other advertisers of residential real estate under the FHA, and that Roommates.com is a “content provider” and hence liable for violating the FHA by disseminating advertisements that demonstrate discriminatory preferences on the basis of race, age, religion, disability, etc. “
The key idea here is that the ruling found that Roommates.com was providing “content,” meaning that it’s not covered under the CDA’s Section 230 which just applies to “service” providers. This distinction between providing “content” and providing “service” means, in the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling, that there’s a different standard that applies and so Roommates.com should have to comply with the FHA.
Other scholars in this area disagree with the ruling in the San Fernando Valley case and argue that it’s rulings like the one in the Craigslist case that should hold sway. For example, Kevin Wilemon in his law review article, “Fair Housing Act, the Communications Decency Act, and the Right of Roommate Seekers to Discriminate Online,” 29 Wash. U. J. L. & Pol’y 375 (2009), argues that speech posted online should be protected as free speech, even if that language includes an intent to racially discriminate in housing.
Where does this leave us? We’re still in the midst of what some have called a slow, painful Internet revolution that is, eventually, going to dramatically change the way we organize social life, the way we do business, the way society is governed. When it comes to housing, as Doug Massey has pointed out, racial discrimination in housing is a constantly moving target (Social Problems 52:148, 2005). As housing choices and roommate services have emerged online, the target of eliminating racial discrimination from housing has shifted yet again.
According to some estimates, more than 20 million people per month use online dating services. Sociologist Andrea Baker has looked at the phenomenon of online dating in a number of publications, including two books, Double Click, and Online Matchmaking (edited with Monica T. Whitty and James A. Inman). Baker points to four factors that indicate what makes for a successful relationship online: (1) meeting place, where they first encountered each other online; (2) obstacles, barriers to getting together overcome by the couples, such as distance and previous relationships; (3) timing, period spent writing or talking before meeting offline, and how intimate they became before meeting offline; and (4) conflict resolution, ability of the people to resolve problems in communication (Baker, CyberPsychology & Behavior. August 2002, 5(4): 363-375). None of the factors Baker identified point to race, nor is this the focus of her research. More recently, however, studies are beginning to emerge that examine the phenomenon of interracial dating in the context of online dating sites.
“The Internet has changed things. There is no segregation on the Internet. So the question then becomes, When you have a free situation where people can contact whom they please, what will happen?”
Taken as a group, whites, women and older people were choosiest about sticking with others of their color. More than four of five whites contacted other whites, while just 3% reached out to blacks. The ratios stayed the same for young and older people, too — 80% chose not to contact others from outside their race. And only 5% of white subscribers responded to inquiries from someone from another race.
What about people who said they were indifferent? For whites who claimed to be, about 80% still contacted whites. Blacks who said they were color-blind when it comes to Cupid were more likely to contact a white than to contact a black.
So, what’s the deal? Are online daters racist? Are they hypocrites? Another news report on the study quotes Mendelsohn again to address this question. He theorizes that the pattern of black people online being more willing to date whites “simply reflects how upward mobility” and an effort to assimilate. On the other hand, dating outside of whiteness may present “more of a hassle for a white person in America” and that dating choice may be viewed “as a social downgrade.” According to Mendelsohn, for whites the calculation is simple:
“You will have trouble with family, with friends, and every time you go to a restaurant people will be looking at you. So you think, Why bother?”
This study suggests a deep-seated white racial frame, that both privileges whiteness and marks black people as “less desirable” dating partners. This online pattern also reflects offline trends. The U.S. Census data from 2000 shows that only one percent of American marriages take place between a black and white person.
Future Research. Clearly, there’s lots of room for future research in this area since the one study I was able to find about this isn’t even published yet. I’d expect that there will be rich research opportunities to explore online dating sites that are specifically targeting people seeking interracial relationships (like the ad pictured above). This is something that enraged the avowed white supremacists I studied in Cyber Racism, but there’s obviously more to be said about these sites.
I’d also be curious about how these patterns of race overlap and intersect with sexuality. The research I’ve seen so far has looked almost exclusively at patterns among heterosexuals at online dating sites. While straight people are clearly the heaviest users of such sites, given recent lawsuits against eHarmony, there is a desire on the part of some gays to participate in the sites. And, contrary to the dating patterns of heterosexuals, LGBT folks are much more likely to be in interracial relationships (updated: e.g., see this discussion – noted by Brandon in comments – and this one), so online dating for this group may reflect these offline patterns as well.
Once more, the research indicates that the Internet is changing our social world, in this instance how people meet potential dating partners. Woven into these new technologies, however, are old patterns of race and racism.