Racial Bias Extends to Places, Not Just People

Over the past half-century and especially in the past few years, the news, popular media, art—all have laid bare the work that still needs to be done to reach racial equality in the United States. But research suggests that work to eliminate racial bias doesn’t end with how we treat individuals—people in the U.S. also have warped views of places associated with black people. And while institutional racial segregation has been outlawed for decades, the United States’ most diverse cities are also its most segregated to this day.

Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University, Courtney Bonam of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Hilary Bergsieker of the University of Waterloo studied peoples’ responses in a series of experiments and found that people devalued black property and areas, even if they said they didn’t harbor prejudices against black people.

The researchers wanted to know if Jim Crow-era segregation laws continue to taint people’s views of black spaces, Bonam said to Rewire.

racial bias“Many studies document that Americans harbor biases against black people,” Eberhardt said in an interview with Stanford. “Ours are the first experiments to show that these biases extend to the physical spaces black Americans inhabit. In other words, stereotypes drive not only how we treat people, but also how we treat places.”

The findings could explain why black neighborhoods are often neglected in city planning and policymaking, and why highways and chemical plants, among other polluters, are often constructed there, she said.

How do people view black neighborhoods?

The researchers asked participants to describe black neighborhoods and then estimate what percent of people in the U.S. would agree with those characterizations. They described black places as “physically degraded, unpleasant, unsafe and lacking in resources.” And the more negative the characteristic they named, the more they felt other people would agree with them.

racial bias“When they hear about these findings, (people) will often ask us, ‘Isn’t this about class? It’s a class issue not a race issue that is leading people to treat black areas with less regard,'” Bonam said. “But when we show people pictures of areas that are middle class, when we give people information that indicates middle class, people are still prone to think black areas are more degraded than white areas.”

To find out how the negative stereotypes they uncovered affect people’s interactions with black places, they asked a racially diverse group to evaluate a house for sale. Half the group was shown a profile of the house that showed a black family living there, half was shown a white family. Both families were attractive, well-dressed and middle class.

The participants who saw the black family associated with the home, compared to the white family, assumed the surrounding neighborhood had worse schools, city services and nearby homes, less access to shopping and banks and was less safe. They also said they were less eager to move into the neighborhood.

Then the researchers added information about the surrounding neighborhood’s largest ethnic population. Half of the experiment participants learned that the neighborhood was mostly black and half learned that it was mostly white. With this added information, participants estimated that the home was worth $20,000 less in the predominantly black neighborhood.

How do people treat black neighborhoods?

When asked to take on the perspective of a chemical company executive and decide where to build a potentially hazardous plant, white participants in another experiment were less opposed to placing it in a predominantly black neighborhood than a white neighborhood, regardless of the income level of that neighborhood. Participants made this decision even when they reported they have no prejudices against black people.

“You don’t necessarily have to have negative attitudes toward people in order to stereotype against the space,” Bonam said.

What can you do to counteract place-based bias?

When we talk about racial bias, “bias is against people, we don’t really talk about bias being against physical space,” Bonam said. “When we try to correct for our biases we think, ‘I need to treat this group of people with respect or in a different way.’ But if we’re not aware, are we trying to control for those biases or keep them in check? I think probably not.”

Simply knowing the black history of the U.S.—knowing what policies and attitudes created segregated black neighborhoods and ghettos—can help, she said.

“White people have less experience with black spaces because of the pervasive segregation that exists today,” Bonam said. “Just knowledge of black history, and in particular critical black history, knowledge of racism in the past can help you become more aware and help you acknowledge that racism still exists, racism still exists on a structural level today. It remains to be confirmed, but my guess is that knowledge of critical history will help people feel connected to the spaces.”

Bonam recommended checking out the PBS documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion” and social scientist Richard Rothstein’s “Fresh Air” interview on institutionalized segregation, as well as his forthcoming book, “The Color of Law.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.