Housing Discrimination in Post-Racial America

It’s real, and it’s widespread. It doesn’t happen with burning crosses or firebombs, but through highly diffuse, difficult to trace, and subtle actions that result in minority buyers even at equal income levels to whites being shown and told about fewer properties and being steered to particular neighborhoods.

This HUD report came out a couple of months ago, and since I was moving from Atlanta at the end of my fellowship, I didn’t comment on it at the time. But it’s a pretty sharp rebuke to anyone who argues that race, independent of economic status (to the extent that that is ever phenomenologically possible, which is another issue entirely) no longer plays a role in where people live or how they participate in the housing market. As the authors summarize their findings,

Although the most blatant forms of housing discrimination (refusing to meet with a minority homeseeker or provide information about any available units) have declined since the first national paired-testing study in 1977, the forms of discrimination that persist (providing information about fewer units) raise the costs of housing search for minorities and restrict their housing options.

I’ve since come to consider contemporary housing discrimination because of some comments attached to a revise/resubmit order for a journal article. The reviewer had some strong comments about the causal effects of class and race on the distribution of racial and ethnic populations in Atlanta and the politics of Fulton County secession, asking me to show that race, and not other explanations, were the best way to account for countywide segregation and by extension for the secessionist impulse. I’ll talk about the politics of secession later on and why they aren’t just reducible to the interests of the affluent, but are also racialized and partisan (actually, I have talked about that). But the question of housing is also an urgent terrain for understanding how race matters, and indeed How Racism Takes Place (highly recommended reading by the way).

There are two related ways to argue that race matters here.

One is to recognize that racism does not operate by way of absolute exclusions, but by group-differentiated access to resources that can be mediated by public, private, and extralegal means. These differentials work in a system that spans interconnected domains (see Barbara Reskin’s great article on viewing racism as a system)–the housing market affects educational opportunity and future earnings, while past practices remain sticky by affecting where people can afford to live and the attitudes of others about where they should live. Reskin calls this pattern über discrimination, denoting a system in which the operation of disparate parts of a system (particular modes of racial differentiation and differential outcomes) produce an emergent product of systemic discrimination that, critically, is relatively stable and durable even if an exogenous factor intervenes in one part of the system. For example, while the 1968 Fair Housing Act made overt discrimination in sales and rentals illegal, it left untouched economic inequality organized by race, the stigma attached to black communities, and the ability of middle-class whites, abetted by federally-backed credit, highway, and construction initiatives, to exercise their own power in the marketplace to flee from urban and inner-suburban neighborhoods when the racial status quo is threatened. And, as HUD documents, the social, cultural, and economic markers established about who belongs where, who is a good homeowner and neighbor, and who ultimately is the right buyer for the right home, police the market in a racialized fashion even today.

Civil Rights laws didn’t, and could not, change the operation of this entire system. While the social divisions of the Atlanta metro area are properly considered as a form of stratification, racial differentiation is, as Douglas Massey argues,

racial inequality remains a basic feature of the U.S. stratification system (Categorically Unequal, p. 38).

In other words, simply because housing is so central to education, status, wealth-building, and other supports for intergenerational mobility, race is baked into any real-world system of ostensible class inequality because of past and ongoing systemic processes. I think that historians would do well to pay attention to the kind of systems thinking Reskin and Massey practice as sociologists, because it offers a way to conceptualize the actual mechanisms by which discrimination and inequality are reproduced over time, which is a big issue for anyone studying recent history who wants to push back against the idea of a clean break marked by the passage of Civil Rights legislation.

The second is to see how differentials work when not individual motivations but the aggregate behaviors and outcomes of millions of people in a housing market are considered. Consider a place like Sandy Springs, Georgia. Once a virtually all-white bedroom suburb, the city is now relatively densely developed and about 13% of its population is African-American, right around the national average. So, who lives in the city is a question of economics, right? Anyone who can afford to buy or rent there can do so, right? From an individual perspective, sure. But from a social perspective, absolutely not. While one part of the system of racial discrimination has changed–the threshold of neighborhood black population at which the average white American claims comfort has risen from practically zero to about 17% according to the 2000 General Social Survey (cited in Massey’s Categorically Unequal, p. 71), this still falls short of the ideal neighborhood composition that racial minorities imagine. The preferences of whites can still define the housing market, and Sandy Springs’s racial makeup, insofar as its black population is concerned, is still well within the limits, and growth in cities further north in Fulton County, as well as in eastern Cobb, Forsyth and Cherokee Counties might well be a result of the migration of people with lower actual comfort with integration in search of what Rich Benjamin calls “Whitopias.” And, as the HUD report suggests, realtors who want to do business in the area are bound to respect those preferences as well.

Again, and going back to the idea of a system of discrimination, there is a real and obvious difference between Sandy Springs as an all-white suburb in 1965 and as a much more diverse suburb in 2013. Yet, the fact of the area’s whiteness relative to the rest of the metropolitan region remains very high, and the core of the process–that whites in the aggregate have the power to set the upper limit of integration to their preferences–is a historical continuity.