Studies Examine Racial Bias in Pollution, Devaluation of Black Communities

Brian Flood, UIC, November 3, 2016

Present-day racial biases may contribute to the pollution and devaluation of lower- and middle-class black communities, according to new research led by a social psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The investigation was based on several studies demonstrating that physical spaces, such as houses or neighborhoods, are targets of racial stereotyping, discrimination, and implicit racial bias.

The researchers found study participants applied negative stereotypes, such as “impoverished,” “crime-ridden,” or “dirty,” in their perceptions of physical spaces associated with black Americans.

“These space-focused stereotypes can make people feel less connected to a space, assume it has low-quality characteristics, monetarily devalue it, and dampen its protection from environmental harms,” said Courtney Bonam, UIC assistant professor of psychology and the study’s lead author.

“Some of the findings show that space-focused stereotypes figuratively pollute the way observers imagine a target area and their judgment about an existing structure in it, while other work demonstrates how this presumed figurative pollution leads observers to consider literally polluting black space.”

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One study asked a national sample of over 400 white U.S. citizens to read a proposal to build a potentially hazardous chemical plant near a residential neighborhood. Half of the participants were told the nearby neighborhood is mostly black, while the other half was told that the area is mostly white.

Even though all participants read the same proposal, they were less likely to report opposition to building the chemical plant when the nearby neighborhood was mostly black.

“They assumed it was an industrial area when it was black, which led them to devalue and subsequently pollute the land there,” Bonam said. “Additionally, these findings held when participants were told that the neighborhood had middle-class property values; and when accounting both for participants’ perceptions of the neighborhood’s class level, and their negative attitudes toward black people in general.”

In another study, a national sample of more than 200 white U.S. citizens were given pictures of the same middle-class, suburban house. Half of the people were told the house was in a predominately black neighborhood, while the other segment was informed that it was in a mostly white neighborhood.

Those who thought the house was in a black neighborhood estimated its value at $20,000 less than the other group, and were less likely to say they would live in or buy the house.

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