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Picketreport.com and the Impact of Segregation

Posted on 14. May, 2012 by

Image of Lifestyle module

Image courtesy of Jezebel.com

Several weeks ago the worlds of web-based technology and fair housing met head-to-head in a conflict that illuminates some disturbing trends.  Some of you may have followed the recent launch of Picketreport.com, a hot new mapping website backed by Quicken Loans.  It allows a homeseeker to view an interactive map of a neighborhood that includes businesses in the area like coffee shops and grocery stores, as well as schools and crime reports, all via cute little multi-colored icons.

What you can’t view on Picketreport.com anymore is the website’s flagship Lifestyle module, which used terms like “Young City Solos” and “Middle Class Melting Pot” to describe the kinds of people that live in the neighborhood you are viewing.  Unfortunately, the Lifestyle module also employed glaring racial stereotypes to label communities of color, like “Soul Survivors” and “Soulful Spenders” to describe working class and upper-middle class African American communities, “Ciudad Strivers” to describe middle-class Latino communities, and “Asian Achievers” to describe affluent Asian families.  In case you were wondering, middle and upper class white families were not described as “White Winners,” or “Cruising Caucasians” but rather the race-neutral “American Royalty” and “Silver Sophisticates.”  Business websites lauded Picketreport.com for “tell[ing] consumers what realtors can’t” because of the Fair Housing Act.  One article (that, shockingly, Picketreport.com proudly links to from its website) suggests that real estate agents can now just direct consumers to the website when questions are posed about the kind of people who live in a neighborhood (translation: racial/ethnic demographic.)  See my earlier post about this issue.

Obviously it goes without saying that the Lifestyle indicator was deeply problematic.  Thankfully some progressive sites like Jezebel, Curbed, and Huffington Post picked up on the racially offensive language and within 24 hours the Lifestyle module was pulled.  The developers of Picketreport.com apologized to anyone who was “offended” and, of course, blamed the issue on the mysterious third-party vendor that aggregates their content.

I’m glad the website pulled the language, but it doesn’t change the underlying problem that the information in the Lifestyle module is information that people want.  Sure, the impact of the Lifestyle indicators would be to maintain segregation by allowing people to pick and choose their neighbors based on race, national origin, and other demographic indicators.  But the real perpetuator of segregation is the widespread attitude that created the demand for this kind of website in the first place.

This is nothing new. White homeowners in America have always been concerned about where the “Soul Survivors” and “Ciudad Strivers” live.  That’s why in the 1950s and 60s real estate agents could successfully go door to door in white neighborhoods, convince white homeowners that black families were moving in next door, and get them to sell way below market value (only to resell to black families at an inflated price.)  Racism in America has always been fed by the recognition that in communities of color it’s more likely that your property values will be lower, less likely you’ll have the grocery store, school and hospital you need down the street, and more likely the government will run a freeway through your neighborhood or authorize a smog-spewing factory to locate in your backyard.  We saw this in New Orleans first hand in our Road Home lawsuit, where homeowners in African American neighborhoods got substantially lower Road Home awards based on property value than homeowners in white neighborhoods with virtually identical homes.  We saw it when the city ran the I-10 through the bustling African American commercial corridor on Claiborne Avenue during Urban Renewal rather than, say, the French Quarter or the Garden District.  And we see it in the National Fair Housing Alliance’s recent report showing how Wells Fargo maintains its bank-owned properties in white neighborhoods in better condition than those located in communities of color.  All of these examples point to the fact that if you’re concerned about things like property values, economic opportunity, and blight, living in a community of color in the United States is a risky decision.

Moreover, as long as homeownership has been the American Dream, many white Americans have believed that their ability to prosper is negatively correlated with their proximity to communities of color.  This attitude is based in deep racial prejudice, nourished by the observation that resources and amenities tend to cluster around prosperous, white communities, while the things that nobody wants in their backyard tend to cluster around communities of color, particularly poor communities of color.  These observations feed racial stereotypes in an individualistic culture that privileges personal responsibility over institutional accountability.  But of course the blame for this disparity doesn’t lie with the people who live in communities of color.  It lies with all of the institutions that continue to allocate funding and resources in a racially discriminatory manner.

In the 1950s and 60s when the real estate agent knocked on the white family’s door, that family moved because they assumed their property values would drop because of the African American family moving in next door.  But really, their property value dropped because of the void in the real estate market created by racially-motivated white flight, and the racially discriminatory decisions of businesses and government that moved their services along with the white families.   Changing neighborhoods were left with the burden of depressed property values and all that follows.

Today, some white families may want to use a tool like Picketreport.com to (consciously or unconsciously) avoid communities of color because of concerns about property values, public safety and access to resources.  But home value depreciation, crime, and resource-deprivation can be traced directly to the shunning of these communities by white home-seekers, and the way that institutions respond by picking up and moving elsewhere.  I’m certainly not forwarding the colonial idea that white families relocate to communities of color for the betterment of all who live there, because we all know that trend causes gentrification and displacement while ignoring the underlying issue.  I’m saying that we need to examine the institutions that privilege “American Royalty” over “Soulful Spenders,” and have throughout our nation’s history.  Rather than simply criticize Picketreport.com, or criticize the people who might use it to choose a neighborhood, we should examine the underlying systemic reasons why some neighborhoods have the resources people need and others do not.

The irony is that the segregation itself makes it harder for us to recognize and dismantle segregation’s systemic roots.  When you live in a racially and economically homogenous community (and I’m saying this as someone who grew up in a white, upper-middle class homogeneous suburb), it’s easy to look over the fence and blame the individuals who live in a community for its condition rather than the institutions who hold the purse-strings and the power.  That’s why the impact of Picketreport.com is so much deeper than just perpetuating segregation.  By perpetuating segregation, it contributes to our nation’s misunderstanding of, and unwillingness to talk about, the very real and present impact of institutional racism.

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