The Gatekeepers: Unconscious Bias, Cultural Intelligence & Real Estate

I grew up in the country of Nigeria, attending an American school where children from a number of countries were educated.  In an institution with about 200 students at that time in the early 80's, there were approximately 60 different nationalities thus creating a uniquely multi-cultural experience which has served as a unique backdrop for selling real estate in a community which is far more homogeneous. As a real estate Broker in West Michigan for over two decades, I've sold homes in all sorts of communities.  My career has spanned a wide swath of geographical locations within West Michigan,  

However, I vividly remember a time during which I experienced blatant racism when I was invited to present a listing service proposal.  As the homeowner opened the door, it was clear that they were surprised to see me.  This was before the days of the Internet so they probably made the request for my service proposal based on how I sounded on the phone.  

The situation became increasingly uncomfortable as I entered the living room for the interview and was interrogated about who I was going to bring to see the home.  They didn't want 'those kind of people' in the neighborhood as it might upset their neighbors.  A bizarre conversation as it was obvious that 'those kind of people' included the person they were currently interviewing to service the sale of their home. 

After a few minutes, I got up and said, 'it is illegal for me or any other REALTOR to consider your request, so I cannot be of service to you' and left the home.  To be frank, it was such a disconcerting experience that I blocked much of the detail out of my mind.   

"Segregation is a social construct.  It is something we choose to do and we can choose not to do. We need to start thinking of diversity in a new way. A city is the sum of the relationships of the people who live there.  We can reshape our cities"  Quotes from  Dave Troy - Social Maps that Reveal A City's Intersections - and Separations

In fact, the issue of racial bias is so deeply embedded within our psyche that we are often unaware that we are prejudiced.  Unconscious bias runs deep and controls many reactions and belief systems. It is so deeply enfolded within the subconscious that most people would not admit to any racist tendencies yet, on closer examination it is clear that their entire lives are void of any engagement with a minority group apart from that which is absolutely necessary. (The Free Implicit Association Test or  IAT Test administered by Harvard University is a great tool to explore the area of subconscious bias)

The real estate community has wrestled with this demon for decades. It undermines the foundation through which community is expressed through our dwelling places - the space we call home.  

Historically, the United States has been defined by segregated neighborhoods.  That is certainly the case in the city in which I live, Grand Rapids MI.  Last year, I attended TED GR where one presentation highlighted areas in which the majority of African Americans live in the city. It was jarring to see the reality reflected so vividly on a big screen.   

Racial steering refers to the practice in which real estate brokers guide prospective home buyers towards or away from certain neighborhoods based on their race. Racial steering is often divided into two broad classes of conduct;

  1. Advising customers to purchase homes in particular neighborhoods on the basis of race
  2. Failing, on the basis of race, to show, or to inform buyers of homes that meet their specifications

Wikipedia:  Racial Steering: The Real Estate Broker and Title VIII" The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 85 No. 6. (1976) 808 - 825

As the traditional Gatekeepers of information and the source of financing for homes, the real estate and lending communities have had a tremendous amount of influence and leverage in defining the context of American neighborhoods.  

An interesting story about the history behind planned communities revolves around the professional contributions of an English architect named Ebenezer Howard.who became renowned for his design of the garden city, a planned utopia which would allow people to live in harmony with nature. While the plan purported to create urban landscapes and promote healthier lifestyles more in tune with nature and  thus lessen the congestion of the city of London, England, it also explicitly stated that this environment was intended to cater to upper and middle class Caucasian residents and provide them with economic benefit as expressed in the excerpt below.

"These communities would be set up for Caucasian upper-middle-class people, by virtue of quick rail access, they would have close economic links to other cities, but would have enough economic activity within its boundaries so that the majority of residents would not have to commute" thus lessening the impact of congestion and pollution. "  Levy, John M. "Contemporary Urban Planning. Pearson Prentice Hall. New Jersey. 2006. Page 48
 

Sir Ebenezer Howard and his theories of design about urban and suburban communities would come to have tremendous influence on the design of communities in America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The city of Detroit, Michigan was deeply impacted thus creating racial steering in a systematic way from 1917 as city officials allowed racial profiling and stereotyping to continue through laws and zoning ordinances.

It was fairly early in my career that I came across the actual evidence of the systemic use of racist terminology in zoning ordinances as I examined a title abstract on behalf of a client.  Several sections of the abstract had been blocked out by black marker, but unfortunately the entirety of the now illegal terminology was still visible in part. The language in the document indicated that the subdivision had restrictions against certain types of people (including Blacks & Jews among others) purchasing homes in that particular subdivision.  

Unfortunately, while we can legislate laws that make racial profiling and steering illegal, we cannot legislate the human heart. A recent conversation with a young mother underscored her specific concern regarded studies about infant mortality rates as a minority living within an a more segregated neighborhood.  Essentially, a child has a statistically significantly lower chance of survival in a severely segregated minority community.  This fact is supported by a Public Health Study, Racial Residential Segregation:  A Fundamental Cause of Racial Disparities in Health.

In living systems when a vein becomes blocked or occluded, the body finds ways to route the flow of blood in another way; one which is usually less efficient than the original design.  Communities are living systems which house human beings.  We cannot afford to continue to ignore the long term, devastating impact of racial segregation.

REALTORS are increasingly dealing with international transactions due to the rise in immigration and are finding that it is necessary to develop another skill set which facilitates better communication with people from other cultures.  It is interesting that many of the prejudicial elements which the industry has struggled with in dealing with minority communities also underscore the challenge of serving diverse communities from a wide strata.  Diversity is not just a racial issue. A lack of it impacts the integral fabric of this our American life..  

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Lola Audu will be leading two workshops in the areas of Cultural Intelligence and Risk Management Reduction for members of the Michigan real estate community on January 22-22, 2016 at the Achieve Leadership Conference for the Michigan REALTORS.  The sessions will cover the the areas of Cultural Intelligence, Unconscious Bias and provide insights  for creating an environment of service through REALTORS that engages clients intelligently, enhances cultural intelligence and expanding opportunities for growth and economic progress.

Lola Audu l LA SPEAKING l Keynote Speaker l Workshop Leader

Lola Audu

LA SPEAKING, 3659 Alpine Avenue Northwest, Suite 102, Grand Rapids, MI, 49321