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Updated 10:00 AM November 24, 2008




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Race guides neighborhood evaluations, study finds

Race is a powerful factor in white decisions about where to live, according to an innovative video experiment conducted by researchers at U-M and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"We sought to determine whether whites are colorblind in their evaluations of neighborhoods, or whether racial composition still matters — even when holding constant the quality of the neighborhood," the report's lead author UIC sociologist Maria Krysan says.

Krysan co-authored the study with Reynolds Farley, research professor emeritus at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), and Mick Couper, senior associate research scientist at ISR.

Their survey-based experiment involved more than 600 randomly selected white adults aged 21 and older living in the Chicago and Detroit metropolitan areas.

Participants were shown videos of various neighborhoods — lower working class to upper class — with actors posing as residents. Each resident was portrayed doing exactly the same activities in each kind of neighborhood, such as picking up mail or talking to neighbors.

While the survey participants viewed the same neighborhoods in the videos, they randomly were assigned to see either white residents, black residents or a mix of both.

Participants then were asked to evaluate the neighborhoods in terms of housing cost, property upkeep, school quality, safety and future property values.

Whites who saw white residents in the video rated neighborhoods significantly more positively in four of the five dimensions compared to whites who saw black residents in the identical neighborhood. Racially mixed neighborhoods fell in between.

"These findings demonstrate that 'objective' characteristics such as housing are not sufficient for whites to overcome the stereotypes they have about communities with African-American residents," says Krysan, who also is affiliated with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Participants were questioned about their endorsement or rejection of racial stereotypes. Whites who held negative stereotypes about blacks as a group were more likely to produce disapproving neighborhood evaluations.

According to the researchers, property value stagnation is one consequence of whites excluding neighborhoods solely due to the presence of black residents.

"Residential segregation limits occupational opportunities for blacks, ensures that blacks and whites will seldom have the chance to attend school together, and seriously limits the acquisition of wealth by African Americans," says Farley, who noted that racial segregation remains common in the older metropolises of the Midwest and Northeast.

"It is rare to find research that combines high quality, new data, with such grounded, real world issues," says Lawrence Bobo, Harvard University sociologist and editor of the Du Bois Review. "Thanks to this highly innovative piece of research, we now understand far better than ever before the factors that create and sustain racial segregation of neighborhoods in America."

The study appears in the latest issue of the journal Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race.

The research was conducted with support from U-M, the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation and UIC.

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