These days, American racism seems pretty easy to spot. Trump has legitimized White Nationalism, the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras has allowed witnesses to document horrific (and sometimes fatal) episodes of bigotry, and the media is filled with stories of anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant vandalism and violence.
The good news–and there really is some–is that these despicable attitudes are held by relatively few of our fellow-citizens. They’ve just felt safe lately crawling out from under their rocks.
The bad news is that minorities– especially African-Americans–are still disadvantaged by longstanding cultural and structural barriers that are much harder to see. Those disadvantages are hard to eradicate because, unlike police shootings and/or racist behaviors at the corner Starbucks, they tend to be invisible.
The Brookings Institution recently addressed one of those “invisible” barriers: the devaluation of black-owned assets.
Homeownership lies at the heart of the American Dream, representing success, opportunity, and wealth. However, for many of its citizens, America deferred that dream. For much of the 20th century, the devaluing of black lives led to segregation and racist federal housing policy through redlining that shut out chances for black people to purchase homes and build wealth, making it more difficult to start and invest in businesses and afford college tuition. Still, homeownership remains a beacon of hope for all people to gain access to the middle class. Though homeownership rates vary considerably between whites and people of color, it’s typically the largest asset among all people who hold it.
If we can detect how much racism depletes wealth from black homeowners, we can begin to address bigotry principally by giving black homeowners and policymakers a target price for redress. Laws have changed, but the value of assets—buildings, schools, leadership, and land itself—are inextricably linked to the perceptions of black people. And those negative perceptions persist.
The Brookings report focused on the question of how much value black homeowners and majority-black communities are losing in the housing market as a result of racial bias. The research concluded that owner-occupied homes in predominantly black neighborhoods are undervalued by an average of $48,000 per home; that brings the cumulative loss to a staggering $156 billion.
Some of the research findings:
- in the average U.S. metropolitan area, homes in neighborhoods where the share of the population is 50 percent black are valued at roughly half the price as homes in neighborhoods with no black residents.
- differences in home and neighborhood quality don’t explain the devaluation of homes in black neighborhoods.
- Metropolitan areas with greater devaluation of black neighborhoods are more segregated and produce less upward mobility for the black children who grow up in those communities. This analysis finds a positive and statistically significant correlation between the devaluation of homes in black neighborhoods and upward mobility of black children in metropolitan areas with majority black neighborhoods.
The link will take you to the full report, including an interactive feature that allows readers to examine the indicators in various neighborhoods and states.
What is truly insidious about the widespread assignment of lower values to homes in majority-black neighborhoods is that it is essentially invisible. Unlike white hoods, brown shirts and burning crosses, most of us simply don’t see the assumptions that operate to diminish the fiscal benefits of homeownership for black families. Those of us who are horrified by videos of overtly racist incidents are largely unaware of the ways that deeply embedded attitudes inform a variety of systems, including real estate markets. Those attitudes continue to disadvantage people–white and black–who live and own property in majority black neighborhoods.
I’m willing to believe that the devaluation of homes in majority black neighborhoods isn’t usually deliberate, that it reflects attitudes about valuation formed in more segregated and racially-polarized times. But that’s not an excuse for continued failure to address the problem.
Many white people who would never shout a racist epithet, or cast a vote for a White Nationalist, nevertheless pooh-pooh the continued existence of structural racism, because they erroneously think it requires active racist intent. It doesn’t.
It just requires indifference.