Systemic Racism

I have been very critical of the Indianapolis Star since its acquisition by Gannett. (In all fairness, it wasn’t a particularly distinguished publication before that.) And while I remain unimpressed overall–and positively livid over its neglect of adequate reporting on state and local government– I must compliment the paper on recent reporting that not only highlights an unfair situation, but provides readers with an excellent illustration of what is meant by systemic racism.

Much of the pushback that accompanies accusations of systemic racism can be attributed to a widespread misunderstanding of what the term means. It doesn’t imply intentional animus–instead, it refers to widespread systems that may well have been intentional at one time, but have since simply been accepted as “the way things are.” (Redlining, for example, was long justified as simply a reflection of the differences between “good’ and “bad” neighborhoods, despite the fact that those designations often simply reflected the racial makeup of the inhabitants of those neighborhoods.)

The lede to the Star report tells the story:

Carlette Duffy felt both vindicated and excited. Both relieved and angry. For months, she suspected she had been low-balled on two home appraisals because she’s Black. She decided to put that suspicion to the test and asked a white family friend to stand in for her during an appraisal. h Her home’s value suddenly shot up. A lot. h During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic last year, the first two appraisers who visited her home in the historic Flanner House Homes neighborhood, just west of downtown, valued it at $125,000 and $110,000, respectively.

 But that third appraisal went differently.

To get that one, Duffy, who is African American, communicated with the appraiser strictly via email, stripped her home of all signs of her racial and cultural identity and had the white husband of a friend stand in for her during the appraiser’s visit.

The home’s new value: $259,000.

This particular situation isn’t a one-off, and it isn’t unique to Indiana. Media outlets have reported several similar situations around the country. As one expert noted, it is almost reflexive–what we might call “implicit bias.”  When appraisers see Black neighborhoods, they make unwarranted assumptions about the prevalence of crime and the quality of the schools, and devalue the property accordingly.

It isn’t just the appraisal process. Duffy qualified for a lower interest rate when her application omitted any indication of her race, even though her credit report didn’t change.

Toward the end of the article, there was a good explanation of the difference between systemic and individual racism.

Andre Perry, of Brookings, has conducted research on how racial bias distorts the housing market. He compared home prices in neighborhoods where the share of the Black population is greater than 50% to homes in areas where the share of the Black population is less than 50%.

They controlled for crime, walkability and other factors that could effect home prices. After those factors were controlled for, homes in Black neighborhoods were underpriced by 23% or about $48,000 per home. Cumulatively, there was a loss of $160 billion in lost equity.

Perry’s research preceded the crafting of the Real Estate Valuation Fairness and Improvement Act of 2021, which was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in April. The bill addresses racial disparities in residential and commercial real estate appraisals.

Discrimination in appraisals can be both systemic and individualistic.

“Systemic is the price comparison model,” he said. “When you only compare homes to like peers in neighborhoods that have been discriminated against, you essentially just recycled discrimination over and over again … You have individual acts of racism and you have more systemic reasons why. Both are robbing people of individual and community wealth.”

When individual bigotry raises its ugly head, most other people can see it for what it is. Systems that incorporate assumptions that were originally bigoted, however, are much harder to see and to root out.

That said, it’s a task we need to attend to.


  1. Replace the somewhat unfamiliar word “systemic” with the word “ingrained” and you can picture the situation in Brooklyn Center, Minn., with the female police officer shouting, “I will taze you, I will taze you. Taze him, taze him!” as she draws her gun and shoots to death 20 year old black man Daunte Wright. Don’t need body cams or witness cell phone videos for that one.

    Was it that officer’s individual bigotry or her police training? “Redlining”, “white flight, and Carlette Duffy’s experience can be defined as “unwritten laws”; not found in the small print but understood to be the way things are done.

  2. As we discovered in our community, much of the discrimination was crafted in the neighborhood association documents long ago until they were declared “illegal,” and that’s when redlining occurred.

    The documents specifically kept African-Americans, Jews, and Chinese from living in those neighborhoods. Even military men who came back from WW2 with vouchers to buy homes were restricted to certain neighborhoods.

    Appraisers, banks, realtors, etc., all knew the score, so applicants, sellers, and buyers would be steered accordingly.

    As your example points out, there is a specific dollar amount difference. This dollar amount accumulated over a specific time period should be what people of color seek in reparations from the City and Federal government. A local economist from a university should perform a study on the wealth that people of color were cheated from accumulating and a reparation payment made accordingly.

    Just “doing better” isn’t sufficient to make amends for harm done. In our community, we have the names of the people who wrote the restrictions and when they were written. The Oligarchs who did it refuse to apologize to the community, which is step 1. They’ve opted to use their money to white-wash history instead.

    They’ve cheated generations out of wealth accumulation. Our local university has the brainpower to calculate the damages, and restitution needs to be made along with a formal apology for wrongdoing.

    This is what MLK Jr. realized in his final days. The federal government gave land grants to white people and even set up colleges to teach them how to farm. Blacks need not apply. They were offered 40 acres and a mule, but the federal government rescinded that agreement as well. He was heading to Washington to get his check but didn’t make it.

  3. We need more articles and examples of the specific unfairness of systemic racism. More people will react negatively to the unfairness than to labels. The comforts of white privilege cause white folks to assume charges of racism are overblown.

    Some will continue to be racist regardless, but most folks want to think of themselves as fair-minded, and they ARE when confronted with specific examples of unfairness or worse. I too am thankful the Indianapolis STAR article told one of those examples. Here’s hoping they provide even more.

  4. Until the first two appraisers have their work investigated and possibly their licenses yanked, nothing changes. Same goes for mortgage banks, realtors, title companies, etc. All these groups are represented by some of the most powerful lobbies in the Indiana Statehouse. Since behavior will only change for the good when the consequences of not doing so are existential, it unfortunately falls to our federal government to do the regulatory heavy lifting. Federalism is dead.

    And, yes, kudos to The Star on this one.

  5. We have the evidence. We all know it’s true. Why does it continue? We need the one thing we don’t have and that is the political will to change the system.

  6. The “implicit bias” or outright “racism” is so evident to anyone who has opened their eyes to see it. For hundreds of years the United States has touted itself to be such a great country of opportunity for anyone. And yet, the reality is….not so much.

    All of our ancestors were immigrants to this country at one point. We freed the slaves at one point and what, we didn’t think they strive to earn what their former owners had? And they would have children. So who are any of us to discriminate against anyone? Yes it is the land of opportunity, but those in power are still holding others down.

    Our country is supposed to be the melting pot, who welcomes all to our land, to partake in the great opportunities we have to offer. We MUST stop the blatant discrimination, because their will be a judgement day at some point for each and every one of us.

  7. I read this and wondered if low-ball appraisals of homes in black neighborhoods aids in gentrification of black neighborhoods.

  8. What to do for interim relief while awaiting (if ever) real reform? I’m thinking of ways to beat the race rap in the sale of black-owned real estate, such as assignment of title to the realtor for a dollar and other good and valuable consideration (the sales price less the realtor’s commission), which realtors should like since higher sales prices equal higher commissions. Subterfuge? No, such properties would sell for market price. The problem? Prospective buyers would soon catch on and demand a return to racist prices, and ReMax and Tucker would comply, quietly, and via carefully crafted language.

    So what to do? Go to the racist Republican legislature? Forget it. That leaves the Congress, a Congress that once gave us redlining prohibitions frequently unenforced in practice. It may be worth a try.

    Systemic racism (of which this is only one example) will not evaporate with the turn of a switch; it will go away (if ever) in bits and pieces, and we have to start somewhere, so I am open to any means by which we can end this and all other vestiges of racist conduct by the majority. Anyone have an ideas on how to end this drag on minority accumulation of wealth?

  9. In South Carolina, we have two examples of Blacks cooperating in systemic racism, almost to the extent of supporting it. First, U.S. Senator Tim Scott allows himself to be paraded in front of white audiences to spout all things divisive, even though he has been stopped multiple times by D.C. police, while heading to the Capitol, for driving while black. On the flip side, Democrat Rep. Jim Clyburn seldom raises his voice to complain about Gerrymandering, presumably because he is a beneficiary of that practice.

    Our across-the-street neighbors in this gated community are retired and black. He volunteers as a driver at a local senior care center where his assistance has been turned down because the client refused to be taken to her doctor by a black person.

  10. Roberta: To me it’s even sadder since I find it unlikely that the offenders will ever be judged.

  11. Yes Kudos to the Star for showing us a stark example of system racism.

    Are there African-American appraisers? If there are not too many of them, why not? Would this help, I wonder? Or would system racism have been internalized by them? I hope not.

    It’s sad that this woman had to hide who she really is and who really inhabits her home to get an honest appraisal.

    Ok. So there’s the problem with system racism in appraisals. So what ,I wonder, is the solution? Is this also about social class? Would a famous black athlete or Senator Cory Booker have the same problem? How about former president Barack Obama?

  12. There are whole neighborhoods where owner have changed the discriminatory parts of their deeds voluntarily…grassroots work!

  13. I’m not an appraiser, but comparable sales play a big part in determining appraised value. Has the property sold yet? That will determine the real value! Please report that when it happens!
    I enjoy your column, read it daily, and often forward it to others.
    I think this issue is perhaps off the track of accurate journalism—but I may be wrong!
    Also, I think an attempt to analyze the issue of reparations is impossible to do with any hope of accuracy, and then to actually make a $$ distribution will tear this country apart. We’re on a train to remedy racism—let’s try not to increase the speed and see the train jump the track?

  14. Comporable sales are not market sales in black neighborhoods due to systemic racism. Such a yardstick has application in majority neighborhoods but not in black neighborhoods, reinforcing, as it does, systemic racism.

  15. I’m sure the racists in America would like nothing more than to swiftly start taking away the property of Black-Americans— just as the Likudniks in Israel have been doing to the Palestinians.

  16. While I, too, appreciate the Star’s handling of the story, it had been reported in the Indianapolis Recorder one week earlier.

  17. I think that there’s a better term for behavior that is “baked into” society and that is culture. Culture is what the average person observed during the formative years as the behavior of adults around them so after a while thought that’s the way things are done here so repeats it throughout life.

    It’s not optional, it’s part of our development process.

    Gender roles are just another flavor of the same thing.

    Cultural anthropologists believe that trouble starts when times change and culture becomes dysfunctional.

    Systemic racism is obsolete but culture doesn’t just stop being for that reason.

    One of the more significant dysfunctions in the Republican belief structure is that they need obsolete culture to have relevance so they promote not changing what’s obsolete.

  18. She may have acquired that property at lesser a value to begin with. So discrepancy of such a huge swing in price may be more accurate than it seems. Most properties valued between $100k and saw an increase of $40k to $70k. Even if her home had come in at $180k I would distressed over the difference in comp values.
    The actual value is what it will sell for like Pete stated but moreover I like what Jo Ann said in replacing systemic with ingrained.

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