Posted on September 18, 2018

Black Space, White Blindness

Henry Grabar, Slate, September 18, 2108


{snip} In nearly every city, white yuppies have boundaries that can be invoked without further explanation: In Charleston, for years, it was north of Calhoun. In D.C., east of 16th. (Both those cities have gentrified too.)

Courtney Bonam {snip} taught psychology and African American studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, before joining the University of California, Santa Cruz. {snip}

In a series of studies, Bonam has found that white Americans hold ironclad stereotypes about black neighborhoods — even when they display little or no animus toward black people. They’re likely to infer from the presence of a black family that a neighborhood is “impoverished, crime-ridden, and dirty,” though they make none of those assumptions about an identical white family in the same house. They’ll knock the value of a house down by $20,000, or nearly 15 percent, if they believe the neighborhood is black. Even after being explicitly told a neighborhood’s home prices and demographics, white participants showed a massive divergence in their perception of the neighborhood’s class depending on whether they thought it was black or white.

People who are ready to accept the middle-class status of a black person can’t do the same with a neighborhood.

Results like these jibe with previous research indicating prejudices toward black space. One study found that more black and Latino residents increase the perception of social disorder. Another showed that putting more black people in a neighborhood decreases the perception of its quality. The sociologist Sharon Zukin has used Yelp to contrast perceptions of black and white gentrifying neighborhoods in New York.

How do we know it’s not just that the observer is racist? In her most recent research, published with Caitlyn Yantis and Valerie Jones Taylor, Bonam compared white participants’ impressions of people and places. Participants were given profiles of houses with values or people with incomes and asked to assign each profile a class indicator from 1 to 7. When assigning class status to people, the participants gave virtually the same rankings to white and black profiles. (Low bar, I know.) But when assigning class status to houses, knowing the race of the neighborhood led to widely divergent outcomes. Most strikingly, white participants were almost incapable of assigning middle-class status to houses in black neighborhoods.

Bonam calls this phenomenon “invisible middle-class black space.” People who are ready to accept the middle-class status of a black person can’t do the same with a neighborhood.

It’s a stereotype that is unfortunately rooted in history. Black neighborhoods in the United States have long been deprived of equivalent public services while having substandard and sometimes hazardous housing. In midcentury American cities, as Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis expertly documents, restrictive housing laws forced extreme overcrowding in black neighborhoods. Sometimes, black families in those areas both had higher incomes and paid higher rents than their white neighbors a few blocks over. But they were barred from moving out, and whites came to see overcrowded black neighborhoods as a self-fulfilling prophecy, justifying the segregation that had created them.

The “neighborhood gap” is still with us. {snip}

So in part, whites may be making an inference from what they know and see represented. But the stereotype then leads them to instantly misjudge counterexamples. There are, of course, middle-class black neighborhoods in the United States, even if they don’t exist in the white imagination. The strength of black-space stereotypes in Bonam’s research suggests white people wouldn’t know one if they saw one.

{snip} One of Bonam’s experiments from 2016, which she modeled after real-life situations, asks participants whether they approve of the siting of a potentially hazardous chemical plant. You can guess what happens: All else held equal, there’s more support for putting it in a black neighborhood. (The study controls for racial animus.)

There has been plenty of explicit racism in the construction of the American city, from highway projects to school sites to lending, and that legacy stays with us. But this subtler devaluation of black space, Bonam posits, happens every day and influences how people connect to and protect these places. {snip}