Everyday Racism

This short clip (7:08) is the second half of a story that the ABC “20/20” news show did called “True Colors.” It features Julianne Malveaux as one of the experts. The whole piece is 19 minutes long (part 1 is here) and is one of the most powerful teaching tools I’ve ever used for demonstrating how everyday racism works:

Basically, what the ABC crews does is set up a “matched study” – a white guy and a black guy are matched on every quality except skin color – and films the results. They put these two gentlemen, both recent college grads, in St. Louis, Missouri to establish themselves. They are sent to find work and a place to live. Hidden cameras record the very different treatment that they receive at almost every turn. It’s a compelling look at how everyday racism operates and the way that it “grinds exceedingly small,” as Malveaux says.

You can purchase a licensed copy (the one above is definitely a pirated copy) of the full video here. Unfortunately, the official copy is priced for institutional buyers ($595), not the individual user. The original story aired in 1991, about the time current college sophomores were born, so the video is vulnerable to being dismissed as “the kind of thing that happened a long time ago, in the distant past.”

Of course, those of us who study racism know that this continues to happen and it continues to “grind exceedingly small” for those who experience it. It’s definitely time for some enterprising investigative reporter to re-make this classic video about everyday racism.

Race, Racism and Online Housing: What the Research Tells Us

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.

GAFFTA (Grey Area Foundation for the Arts) - Tenderloin Dynamic
(Creative Commons License photo credit: anitakhart )

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.

Judge to FDNY: ‘Pattern, Practice and Policy of Intentional Discrimination’

First, let me begin with a personal note about the FDNY.    I was in New York City when the terrorist attacks occurred on 9/11.  I was grateful on that day that my loved ones came home that day from working in lower Manhattan, shaken but not physically harmed.  I was so moved by the heroism, and devastating loss, to the FDNY (343 died) on that day — and so befuddled about what to do in the face of that overwhelming tragedy — that one of the things I did was what my people do when someone dies:  I cooked and delivered food.  Specifically, I cooked a huge batch of fried chicken and walked it over to the firehouse nearest my apartment.   I say that to let readers know that I have a tremendous respect for the day-to-day heroism of firefighters and the work that they do.  And, yet, in watching all those funerals for firefighters after 9/11 it was impossible not to notice how overwhelmingly white and male the FDNY remains.    The racial composition of the fire department is no accident.

A judge in New York ruled that the FDNY had engaged in a deliberate “pattern, practice, and policy of intentional discrimination.” Back in July, 2009, Judge Garaufis  ruled that the FDNY used a test in 1999 and 2002 that had a discriminatory effect on black applicants.   In his ruling on Wednesday, January 13, 2010,  the judge found that the city intentionally discriminated against blacks in using those tests and in ignoring calls over the years to change the testing procedure. The suit was brought by three people who took the test and by the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black city firefighters.

E 280 Gear racks

Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: MAG Photography Studio (Marc-Anthony G.)

Legal experts said the decision was the first in recent memory in which a court had found that the city had intentionally discriminated against a large group of people in the workplace.  There is also evidence that those at the highest levels in city government, including (former) Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scopetta and Mayor Bloomberg, were aware of this “pattern, practice and policy of discrimination” at the FDNY and did nothing to stop it, although the judge’s ruling stopped just short of holding them legally responsible.   However, the judge did write that he found strong evidence to suggest that they were made aware numerous times that the Fire Department’s entrance exams were discriminatory, yet failed to take sufficient remedial action. Mayor Bloomberg testified at a deposition in August that he “did not recall” receiving a report more than six years ago warning him about sharp differences in the pass rates between white and minority candidates for firefighter jobs.  Part of what is so remarkable about this decision is that it is one of the few court decisions in recent memory that finds there was racially discriminatory intent, rather than simply a disparate-impact.

The New York Times article quotes Paul Washington, 48, a firefighter in Brooklyn and a former Vulcan Society president, who said that the ruling validated “what we’ve been saying for the longest time, and which I’ve been saying since 1999 — that the Fire Department discriminates, intentionally, and they just continue to do it.” Washington says he believes that over the department’s 145-year history, there were probably “thousands of thousands of black men and women who should have had this job and didn’t get it.”

Washington’s comment in the NYTimes highlights gender discrimination, not addressed by this court decision.  Make no mistake, the FDNY has also systematically and intentionally discriminated against women over its 145-year history.  The story of Brenda Berkman  illustrates how difficult it is even for women with white skin privilege who still face gender discrimination.   Berkman is a white woman who sued the FDNY and eventually became a Captain in the Fire Department,  There is an excellent documentary by Bann Roy about Berkman, called “Taking the Heat.” The film also touches on the struggle of black firefighters and includes some interviews with members of the Vulcan Society.

Federal Judge Garaufis struck a blow for racial equality with this decision, but the FDNY has a long way to go before it will be an equitable organization in practice.   Until that time, the kind of excessive valorization of firefighters that goes on – perhaps especially in this city – will always be a bit tempered for me by the knowledge that this particular form of on-the-job heroism is only available to a few, white men.

Racist Employment Practices in a Recession

The New York Times has a useful article touching on some recent research on discrimination in employment against black workers with college degrees:

College-educated black men, especially, have struggled relative to their white counterparts in this downturn, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for black male college graduates 25 and older in 2009 has been nearly twice that of white male college graduates — 8.4 percent compared with 4.4 percent. Various academic studies have confirmed that black job seekers have a harder time than whites. A study published several years ago in The American Economic Review titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” found that applicants with black-sounding names received 50 percent fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names. A more recent study, published this year in The Journal of Labor Economics found white, Asian and Hispanic managers tended to hire more whites and fewer blacks than black managers did.

The focus seems to be just on black men. But black women also face much racial discrimination, as well as gendered-racist discrimination in workplaces, doing business, and elsewhere.

The journalist adds this about the well-educated black men featured in the article:

It is difficult to overstate the degree that they say race permeates nearly every aspect of their job searches, from how early they show up to interviews to the kinds of anecdotes they try to come up with. “You want to be a nonthreatening, professional black guy,” said Winston Bell, 40, of Cleveland, who has been looking for a job in business development

The article reports that many black men hide their racial identity in their resumes because that reduces the discrimination, at least initially, against them.

Not once in the article, however, are the main and major perpetrators of this employment discrimination, mostly white male managers and executives, featured as the central creators of this deep U.S. problem. There is a tone here and there of “they say race permeates,” which softens the analysis of racism. There is of course much evidence and research such journalists could have examined on the white racist framing in the heads of many white executives, whose racialized thinking and action out of that framing needs to be the center of such stories. Such racist practices are old, foundational, and systemic. For even the more “liberal” analysts, yet, they still mostly get presented as episodic and/or tacked on to an otherwise unproblematical society, with white perpetrators seldom problematized.

Police Brutality and the National Political Agenda

The Root ( a Scales Of Justicevery good source on racial issues) has a recent post by Sherrilyn Ifill, University of Maryland law professor and civil rights lawyer, on the continuing reality of police malpractice and brutality, most of it directed against men of color—most especially, black men (Creative Commons License photo credit: srqpix). She begins with the sad “talk”:

It’s one of the depressing ironies of black life that in the Obama era, black mothers and fathers must continue giving their teenage sons “the talk.” I’m not talking about the birds and the bees. I’m talking about the “how to act when the police stop you” talk. Rule 1. Don’t talk back to the officer. Rule 2. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t doing anything wrong. Rule 3. And this is critical, don’t reach for your wallet without asking the officer first. Supplemental rule. Carry a pink cell phone if you can. A black cell phone may look like a gun to a nervous cop.

She lists some of the many police killings in the last couple of years, such as brutal taser death of Baron Pikes in Winnfield in 2008:

Tasered nine times within 14 minutes by a 21-year-old white officer, Pikes may well have been dead – handcuffed and unresponsive in a police cruiser—when the last two 50,000-volt charges were delivered directly to his chest. The officer reportedly admitted that he began using his Taser on Pikes when the handcuffed black man responded too slowly to the officer’s demand that Pikes get up and walk to the police car.

Then mentions others like this one:

In Dallas, 23-year-old Robbie Tolan, a minor league baseball player and the son of former Major League Baseball player Bobbie Tolan, was shot in his own driveway in an affluent white suburb on New Year’s Eve. White police officers, purportedly believing that the SUV driven by Tolan and his cousin was stolen, approached the young black men and ordered them to lie down on the ground. The car belonged to Tolan’s parents, and the officers reportedly did not identify themselves. When Tolan’s parents came outside to find out what was happening, one of the officers allegedly shoved Mrs. Tolan against the garage. Robbie Tolan yelled to the officer to stop pushing his mother, and that, witnesses say, is when he was shot by one of the officers.

She notes a Youtube video of

The recent case involving the cell phone video of a drunk, white, off-duty police officer in Erie, Pa., making crude jokes about a black murder victim and ridiculing the victim’s grieving mother, illustrates part of the problem.

We have discussed some of these major instances of police brutality on this blog numerous times.

In conclusion, Ifill makes this on-target comment:

The results of these incidents are depressingly predictable. Outrage. Marches. Most often no indictment. Sometimes an indictment. Always an acquittal. More marches. Next incident. The stunning lack of change suggests that our protest-oriented approach to police brutality must focus less on punishment for individual officers, and more on systemic institutional changes within our police academies and departments.

Just how systemic the police harassment and brutality is can be seen in polls and in social science research. For example, one 2001 Gallup poll found 83 percent of black respondents had experienced racial profiling in the last year. In addition, in a 2007 Gallup poll a fifth of the black respondents reported that had suffered discrimination at the hands of police officers, a proportion that has increased in recent years.

Lest some think that we are ignoring lots of white victims of police brutality here, we might note that one social science study back in the 1990s analyzed 130 police-brutality accounts in several cities across the country. In that reviews of cases, criminologist Kim Lersch discovered that the targets of this type of police malpractice are almost always black or Latino. The latter made up 97 percent of the victims of police brutality, while the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of officers involved were white. Police brutality overwhelmingly involves white-on-black or other white-on-minority violence. (See discussion in Chapter 5 here.)

Racism in NYC Restaurant Hiring: Matched Study

A newly released matched study reveals racism in hiring patterns in New York City restaurants  (Creative Commons License photo credit: ktylerconk ).Busy lunch at Rue 57 Matched studies, like the one used in this research, are basically field experiments in which pairs of applicants who differ only by race (or sometimes gender) are sent to apply for housing, seek services or accommodations, or, in this case, apply for jobs.

In this study, economist Marc Bendick, Jr. sent pairs of applicants with similar résumés and matched for gender and appearance; the only difference in each pair was race.

Bendick found that white job applicants were more likely to receive followup interviews, be offered jobs, and given information about jobs, and their work histories were less likely to be investigated in detail than their black counterparts.

If you’re one of the many graduate students who read this blog and you’re contemplating what to do for a dissertation, consider a matched study.    We need more of them and this type of research gets well-reviewed in the top sociology journals.  Another recent matched study in sociology is the one that Devah Pager did for her 2003 AJS piece, “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” In this research, Pager matched pairs of individuals (again with similar résumés and matched on gender) applied for entry-level jobs—to formally test the degree to which a criminal record affects subsequent employment opportunities. The findings of her study reveal that a criminal record presents a major barrier to employment; and with regard to racism, Pager found that blacks are less than half as likely to receive consideration by employers, relative to their white counterparts.   Perhaps most disturbing in Pager’s research is the finding that black nonoffenders, that is African Americans with no criminal record, were less likely to get a job than whites with prior felony convictions.

Matched studies, such as the just released Bendick’s study of hiring in restaurants and Pager’s classic study of entry-level hiring of those with (and without) the mark of a criminal record, are important social science research for investigating the persistence of racial discrimination in hiring practices.