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Originally published Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 9:01 PM

Jerry Large

Overcoming racism in Seattle rentals

The first step toward treating a disease is to have an accurate diagnosis. That goes for most problems or challenges. If you can't diagnose a problem, or worse, you don't recognize it exists, it will persist. So here we are in 2011 and landlords in Seattle are still discriminating against prospective tenants who are black.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes I don’t have the time or money to discriminate based on race, but... Read more
quotes The study was done for the city's Office of Civil Rights, so they found what they... Read more
quotes "but unequal treatment that springs from flawed thinking" Jerry is an... Read more

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The first step toward treating a disease is to have an accurate diagnosis.

That goes for most problems or challenges. If you can't diagnose a problem, or worse, you don't recognize it exists, it will persist.

So here we are in 2011 and landlords in Seattle are still discriminating against prospective tenants who are black.

What we are seeing is not the hate-filled racism so common when I was young, but unequal treatment that springs from flawed thinking.

In case you missed it, The Times reported Saturday on a test of bias in rental housing in Seattle.

The study was done for the city's Office of Civil Rights and found indications of bias against black people and in favor of white people in 69 percent of the rentals tested.

There was also bias against people who use service animals. That occurred with 36 percent of the rentals.

Many of the readers who commented on the research thought landlords were just making sensible decisions. Asking questions like: Who are you going to rent to, a white guy in a suit or a black guy in sweats? Except that's not how bias testing works.

For the race research, testers selected a random sample of rentals from across the city and sent white and black applicants to each one.

Applicants wore similar clothes, something that looked nice, and the information they put on the application was designed to make them essentially the same. People who do the testing are always coached so their behavior will be similar as well.

The only difference was skin.

This is progressive Seattle; it's 2011, and we have a mixed-race president. Racism is dead, right?

Well, a lot of the commenters think so, and it's not so hard to understand why.

I talked with Elliott Bronstein about the study and reaction to it. Bronstein is a spokesman for the Seattle Office of Civil Rights.

"Certainly the nature of discrimination is really different from what it was when we were teenagers," he said. "It's much more subtle now."

Bronstein describes himself as a 59-year-old white guy who knows it's not easy to see life from the perspective of someone who is not white, and without some knowledge of other people's experiences, "it is easy to say that (discrimination) didn't happen, people are just complaining."

Beyond that lack of awareness is a frequent dismissal of evidence of ongoing discrimination. This is far from the first study to find such biases. They show up in every aspect of daily life from personal relationships to the workplace, criminal justice to health care. Data accumulates, but discriminatory practices continue.

There's a professor at Central Washington University, whose work I've mentioned before, Key Sun.

He's written that one reason for the persistence of these biases is that we treat bias as a moral failing, when often it is instead a "manifestation of cognitive distortions."

Our heads are full of images and information from media and other sources that paint black people in particular in negative ways, with not much on the positive side to balance the ledger.

He cites research that 15 percent of U.S. drug users are black, but 50 percent of network news stories on drugs focus on black people.

And he writes that people make another error. They mess up the math, assuming negative statistics that apply to some black people apply to every black person.

More than 80 percent of serial killers are white males, but no one would assume 80 percent of white males are serial killers.

What seems to be hard for people is to assess each person who shows up to apply for a job or an apartment as an individual.

Awareness is the first step toward being able to do that, which is why the city did the rent study.

There are people who don't want equality, but Bronstein believes most of us do, "and the only way we can get there is to acknowledge where we are," he said, not to feel guilty, but to make a change.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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