Does unfair discrimination really exist?

A reader writes in response to my last post: “I have great difficulty to believe there are legal impediments in the area of discrimination. I used to live in a fully integrated neighborhood in Chevy Chase near DC, where everybody who could afford to live there was able to move in without the slightest impediment. I also have difficulty understanding the connection with philanthropy. Maybe the author could clarify the connection.” 

Truthfully, there are an amazing number of legal impediments “in the area of discrimination.”   Take housing — while it’s possible that a person of color, let’s say African-American, who has found the home he/she wants to buy and who has the full purchase price in hand may be able to buy without legal impediment, this situation is far from typical.

Studies consistently show that African-Americans looking for a home are steered away by realtors from largely White neighborhoods into predominantly Black neighborhoods, yet this is illegal.  Studies also show that African-Americans are more frequently denied mortgages or given mortgages with more onerous terms even when they present the same qualifications as Whites, and this is illegal too.

The recent mortgage foreclosure crisis has revealed other problems.  African-Americans are faced with more predatory loan practices, and African-Americans at risk of defaulting on their mortgage are less frequently helped and therefore pushed into default than Whites in the same predicament.   The rental market shows additional problems of discrimination, with disproportionate harassment by landlords leading to eviction.

It’s very common for people to think that such problems don’t happen in their community, even when the data (and other people’s experience) show otherwise.  While the efforts by ERASE Racism reported in my post are limited to discrimination in one region of New York (and who thinks such problems exist on Long Island, of all places?!), these same problems of lax enforcement of fair housing laws are found virtually everywhere.

Here is the link to Montgomery County’s (where Chevy Chase is located) fair housing enforcement efforts, and here, for the sake of comparison, is New Orleans.  For more on fair housing enforcement and advocacy see here and here.

It has taken the efforts of advocacy organizations such as ERASE Racism to insist on better rules and more effective law enforcement.  Every state and city has such advocacy efforts, which are typically non-profit organizations funded largely by philanthropy, from individual donors to local and national foundations, on web pages like this.

The reality of unfair housing discrimination even after it was made illegal shows the persistence of the problem.  Housing discrimination is an arena like others where perhaps well-meaning people who don’t think of themselves as racist nevertheless benefit from a system that produces results that favor Whites over others.  I’m not suggesting such people are racist, but that the (housing and finance) systems are racist; this is referred to as institutional or structural racism.  Worsening the problem is that solutions that ignore race in favor of income, class, poverty, or opportunity are inadequate for erasing the racism that remains.

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Posted by Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / February 13, 2012