Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Racial Apathy in DC

In an early January post, I wrote about a study of residential segregation in DC by GWU sociologists. From their telephone survey of DC residents, Gregory D. Squires, Samantha Friedman, and Catherine E. Saidat found that blacks experienced racial discrimination in the DC housing market, even when controlling for class and other variables. Their findings support those of a 1998 Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington study, in which the Council sent out pairs of people (one black and one white) to investigate the local housing and mortgage market. According to Squires and his colleagues, "Investigators found that blacks were discriminated against 33% of the time in their efforts to buy homes, 44% of the time when they attempted to rent, and 37% of the times they applied for mortgage loans." The GWU sociologists found that the white nature of certain DC neighborhoods is not purely the result of economic reasons, educational levels, or personal choices.

The GWU sociologists made another interesting finding. Blacks are significantly less likely than whites to believe that blacks and whites have the same opportunities within the housing market. They found that over 50% of whites believed that whites and blacks, and whites and Hispanics, had the same choices in the housing market. In contrast, 16% of blacks believed that whites and blacks had the same choices, while 21% of blacks believed that whites and Hispanics had the same choices.

Why is this so interesting? Because it reflects the trends discussed by Emory University sociologists Tyrone A. Forman and Amanda E. Lewis in their fascinating article, "Racial Apathy and Hurricane Katrina." Forman and Lewis demonstrate that this belief that housing markets and society more generally no longer discriminate racially is actually a new form of racial prejudice, a color-blind racism. By analyzing national- and city-level opinion surveys, the authors find that the white Americans in increasing numbers have racial apathy -- apathy towards racial and ethnic inequality. By 2003, for example, 27% of young whites said that they were "never concerned about race," up from 10% in 1994. This would not seem to be a problem except that this racial apathy is statistically correlated with opposition to marriage to Blacks and Latinos, lack of sympathy for Blacks and Latinos, and the perception that Blacks and Latinos are economic and political threats; in addition "Whites who believe that Blacks and Latinos (1) are less intelligent than Whites, (2) are more difficult to get along with than Whites, and (3) do a worse job supervising their children relative to Whites, are more racially apathetic." Racial apathy is a form of collective indifference to and ignorance of racial inequality in the US. The surprise many felt when they saw the poverty among many Blacks in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina can be explained by this racial apathy. They weren't paying attention, or they could actively and successfully ignore the situation.

The authors then turn to a survey and long interviews (1-6 hours long) with graduates of an integrated high school in the Midwest. The white respondents interviewed stated that they were color-blind and open minded. They also said that they were in their own worlds, avoiding politics and race discussions. Yet, some had actively structured their lives to avoid people of other races, such as by moving to nearly all white suburbs and not allowing their children to go to integrated schools. This active avoidance and indifference "sustain[s] a system of inequality that restricts opportunities for many ethnoracial minorities." This indifference is not a traditional racist attitude or even a self-conscious white identity, rather "they belong to a passive social collective or series, in which members are a similar location within the racial structure -- a location that has material implications." The racial composition of, for example, census tract #66 (over 90% white; south of East Capitol, north of Pennsylvania, between Capitol and 8th St SE), is probably not an accident "but a result of Whites' status as members of a social collectivity whose lives are at least in part shaped by the racialized social system in which they live and operate."

While Forman and Lewis made many other findings, I want to point out that the authors did talk with those who have worked actively against racial apathy. These people had consistent, meaningful contact with racial minorities and have avoided racial apathy, which "prevents many Whites and some ethnoracial minorities from recognizing or taking action to redress persistent racial inequality."

Martin Luther King, Jr., remarked in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" that "we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people." In Ward 6, do you find apathy to inequality? Is racial apathy correlated with avoidance of certain races in social life? Is racial apathy overcome by walking by each other on the street or taking the Metro in the same car? Or does it require something more, like dependence on each other to realize some substantive project or outcome?


  1. We live in a society that has created extreme racial (as well as class and other) inequalities over centuries. It is not necessary to create a racist society through active racism but only to preserve it through passive tolerance of this society (racial apathy). Too many people think not thinking (or at least admitting to thinking) racist thoughts is a significant form of anti-racism. Instead, anti-racism requires active intervention against already established racial inequality. One of the most important form of such active intervention is affirmative action. An easy way to 'smoke out' the racism inherent in racial apathy is to listen to the vicious hostility of many apparently non-racist people toward affirmative action.

  2. Another question to consider: Are people separated more by class than by race?

  3. I think the data cited in this post shows that race plays a significant factor even when class is controlled for. This does not mean that class isn't also extremely important. I hope the sociologist in our neighborhood will write about "intersectionality" someday, the way race, class, gender, and other categories of inequality do not simply compound one another but produce unique forms of oppression that can be more severe than the sum of their components.

  4. In this neighborhood? How about burn out to inequality? you see inequality all the time. Social and civic organizations have to confront it all the time to be relevant. You want to do the right thing or be a force for good in the world but you're a pebble against a river.

    Posting from east of 11th and south of Pennsylania where you can't escape seeing the vast inequality in this neighborhood; and I'm very aware that many of my "Capitol Hill" neighbors would just as soon this part of Capitol Hill didn't exist. I feel bitter about it and I have a high income and I'm white. Go figure. I suspect from my interactions with most in this neighborhood that class is a bigger problem than race; but good luck seperating the two in this city.

  5. When we came to this neighborhood some years ago there was a saying: You don’t move to Capitol Hill. You join it. Most residents, old and new, of all races and means, were really interested in working together to make and keep this a good place to raise families. To address Johanna’s last question, we depended on each other to achieve that objective (which, notice, is not the same as erasing inequality). It wasn’t always smooth going, but there was a common expectation that if we kept at it we would all benefit. That dynamic isn’t as apparent now. Instead, I read statements by “poor” people who say they understand why “rich” people are singled out for violence, and “rich” people threatening to retaliate. Some of the people who identify themselves as poor also take pains to identify themselves as white. I believe there is an apathy problem here, but question whether it is racial apathy.

  6. Are rich people singled out for violence? My immediate sense is that poor people suffer a lot more violence than rich people, but maybe there is some data I'm not aware of?

  7. I do not know of any database that tracks criminals and victims by income in this area. I referred to statements of others. Consider, for example: "The influx of wealthy residents has some of us (poor people) on edge, and there will be those desperate enough to hit someone over the head on the street if they feel their housing and thus their life is being threatened by these rich people. That doesn't excuse these crimes but it could explain them." This quote is from a letter printed in the Hill Rag recently. The writer's sentiment is as upsetting as unqualified hostility by some neighbors to residents of public housing. Johanna asked good and useful questions about apathy. We don't have to live in defensive camps.


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