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The Racism Right Before Our Eyes

Most of our public discourse about racism — when it’s not about violence or monuments or presidential rhetoric — is about white privilege, implicit bias and structural racism. Instead of specific actors, we tend to focus on forces that don’t actually implicate anyone in particular.

Those forces are real. And those conversations are important. Racial inequality is about the structure of our society. But it’s also about more ordinary bias and discrimination.

There are still racist individuals. They still act in racist ways. And in the aggregate, their actions still work to disadvantage entire groups on the basis of race. It’s not as visible as it once was, but it is real, and it still weighs on the lives — and the livelihoods — of millions of people.

A potent example comes from a deep new investigation of housing discrimination. Working with outside experts, Newsday, the leading newspaper on Long Island, conducted a three-year investigation into racism in the housing market there, sending pairs of undercover testers (black and white, Hispanic and white, Asian and white) in sequence to realtors throughout the area.


The testers reported racially disparate treatment in 40 percent of interactions with realtors. Black testers experienced disparate treatment in 49 percent of cases, Hispanic testers in 39 percent and Asian testers in 19 percent. Some realtors refused to show listings or conduct house tours for minority testers, others steered them away from predominantly white neighborhoods. They warned white testers away from black or Hispanic neighborhoods while also showing more listings and allowing them to see homes without proof of mortgage-ready financing.

This was one investigation in one part of the country with a specific history of housing discrimination and racism. But a similar study from 2012 — conducted by the Urban Institute and the Department of Housing and Urban Development — showed nationwide patterns of housing discrimination. After conducting 8,000 tests in a representative sample of 28 metropolitan areas, researchers found that, compared with whites, black renters and home buyers were shown substantially fewer units, as were, to a lesser extent, Asian-Americans and Hispanics.

Discrimination is common, not just in housing, but in employment as well. Fifty-six percent of black Americans, 33 percent of Hispanics and 27 percent of Asian-Americans said they experienced racial discrimination when applying for jobs, according to a 2017 survey by NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Their self-reporting is backed by data. A 2017 meta-analysis of field experiments on racial discrimination found that for black Americans, discrimination has been static — there has been no change since 1989. Whites still receive more than a third more callbacks for jobs, even after accounting for education, local labor market conditions and other factors.

Not every instance of workplace discrimination is reported to authorities — far from it. But it’s not for nothing that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency tasked with tackling unfair treatment in the labor market, has received hundreds of thousands of complaints of racial discrimination at workplaces since 2010.

Large and persistent racial gaps in housing and employment are a fact of American life. The black unemployment rate is still consistently higher than the white unemployment rate; blacks are still disproportionately concentrated in low-wage, low-advancement positions; and African-Americans are still more likely than any other group to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and disadvantage. “It is difficult or in some cases impossible to reproduce in white communities the structural circumstances under which many black Americans live,” as the sociologist William Julius Wilson put it.

A good deal of this is the long overhang of past discrimination, the legacy of Jim Crow and redlining and urban renewal and the deliberate neglect of communities of color by authorities at all levels of government. But despite what we might believe about modern American society, some of it is the result of ongoing explicit discrimination. Millions of Americans are still taking deliberate action to deny jobs and homes on the basis of race.

A recent study shows how this might look in practice. Black and white job seekers receive job leads from their social networks at similar rates. They use those networks at similar rates, too. But as David Pedulla and Devah Pager (who died last year) show,

black job seekers are less likely than white job seekers to (1) know someone at the companies to which they are submitting applications, and (2) have their network mobilize key resources on their behalf, specifically contact an employer on their behalf.

This could be an unfortunate happenstance, I guess. But more likely it reflects past discrimination and how it continues to shape the labor market, especially when present and future opportunity depends on past access.

There are solutions — you can expand state and federal anti-discrimination agencies, as well as fully enforce the Fair Housing Act, for starters — but the first step is to shake ourselves of the idea that explicit racial discrimination is yesterday’s problem. It’s a live force in American life that works in tandem with structural racism to recapitulate past injustice and reproduce racial disadvantage, a one-two punch that ensures its future.

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