Bias Override: Overcoming Barriers to Fair Housing

Do you have implicit bias?


 Debbi Conrad  |    July 16, 2020
Bias Override

The National Association of REALTORS¬ģ and the Perception Institute have teamed up to create a video to help REALTORS¬ģ recognize unconscious biases that may get in the way of offering the best service to every customer. The Perception Institute, one of the nation‚Äôs premier trainers on implicit bias, helps people identify ‚Äúthinking traps‚ÄĚ that can lead to a REALTOR¬ģ losing a sale and a consumer losing a housing opportunity. In this timely presentation, the mind science experts at the Perception Institute at perception.org have presented an online workshop to give an overview of implicit bias and to help members avoid implicit bias in their daily business interactions. Implicit bias describes what is happening when, despite our best intentions and without our awareness, racial stereotypes and assumptions creep into our minds and affect¬†
our actions. 

Drawing upon the latest evidence-based research, the Perception Institute explains how our brains‚Äô automatic, instant association of stereotypes with particular groups can cause us to treat those who are different from us unfairly, despite our best intentions and without conscious awareness. The Perception Institute then applies these concepts to the everyday work of REALTORS¬ģ and offers strategies to override bias in order to convey respect, ensure fairness¬†and improve business relationships.¬†

This article overviews some of the lessons and information from the Bias Override: Overcoming Barriers to Fair Housing video, but it only scratches the surface.

Watch the video at www.nar.realtor/videos/bias-override-overcoming-barriers-to-fair-housing.

The importance of real estate and the problem of discrimination

The Bias Override video opens up with an example of what would appear to be obvious discrimination in a real estate transaction. The buyer and the agent have exchanged promising emails and started a Zoom conversation about the house the buyer and his wife are so excited about. The buyer tells the agent the house is just perfect as the buyer finally gets his Zoom video on, and the agent suddenly talks about other houses in other neighborhoods he might want to see ‚Äúin case this one is not a good fit.‚Ä̬†

REALTORS¬ģ play such an important role in helping people find homes, and that could not be truer than it is now with the COVID-19 pandemic. Home is more precious than ever before.¬†

And it is also equally important that real estate professionals treat people fairly and avoid those biases that lead to agents treating diverse groups of people differently. Real estate professionals can be the guides to assist home seekers to a happy resolution of their quest, or they can be the gatekeepers keeping certain groups of people out of neighborhoods ‚Äúwhere they would not fit in.‚Ä̬†

Historical perspective

The Bias Override video looks at the history of segregation and racial biases in this country. During the first half of this century, there were stereotypes associated with immigrant groups reaching our shores at Ellis Island. The Irish, Germans, Polish and Italians, to name a few, were looked down upon and sometimes treated badly, but over time were integrated into communities and became neighbors, business associates and friends. People learned about one another in person at backyard barbeques, and their distinctions blurred. They were assimilated.

But the history of this country did not include backyard barbeques for African Americans. The federal government created programs where loans were extended only to whites who intended to live in the all-white subdivisions and neighborhoods and thus promoted segregation. 

This segregation was reinforced with redlining, the discriminatory practice of fencing off areas where banks would avoid investments based on community demographics. Every neighborhood with some black population was given a bad rating, and residents of those areas ‚ÄĒ most often black inner-city neighborhoods ‚ÄĒ were refused loans. Redlining gave whites an economic incentive to keep blacks out of their communities.

As the Bias Override video points out, this unsavory chapter in our history also involved real estate agents engaging in blockbusting. Blockbusting is a process whereby real estate agents and developers convinced white property owners to sell their house at low prices by promoting fear that racial minorities would soon be moving into the neighborhood and causing home values to decline. Real estate agents regrettably were cheating whites, who were selling their homes at below-market rates, and cheating blacks, who were buying these homes at above-market rates. Blockbusting was made illegal in the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

This government-promoted segregation of neighborhoods, some of which survives today, never allowed blacks to be assimilated with those backyard barbeques. Instead, the information many people have about other groups today comes from stereotypes portrayed in the media; interpersonal interactions with blacks has not taken place for many people.

What is implicit bias about?

Bias is a preference for or an aversion against certain people. Implicit bias is those automatic associations that emerge instantly in our unconscious brains regarding groups and identities like race, sex, age or religion. The associations in the unconscious brain may be inconsistent with the values we have in our conscious brains.

A great illustration of the concept of implicit bias, generally speaking, is shown in the Stroop Test featured in the video, involving primary colors and color names. This short portion of the video, about 21 minutes into the film, shows what happens when the conscious brain and unconscious brain are in conflict. This same sort of conflict may be at work when the unconscious brain makes associations with certain categories such as age, gender, race or ethnicity. For example, in some cultures, elders are revered as being wise while in the United States, being old may be associated with being incompetent, feeble or other negative connotations. The unconscious brain follows these associations.

The Bias Override video offered the following comments by real estate agents as examples reflecting implicit bias:

  • ‚ÄúI am going to show you some homes in ‚Äėyour kind of neighborhood.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
  • ‚ÄúYou don‚Äôt have to live in that neighborhood, you can afford to live over here where you‚Äôll feel more comfortable.‚ÄĚ

The agent is linking stereotypes with the group to which they have identified the buyer as belonging.

Another factor that may enter into a real estate transaction scenario is identity anxiety, which is the worry that an interaction with someone of a different group will not go well because of that difference. The video gives an example of how identity anxiety can show up for real estate agents: ‚ÄúWould you be more comfortable with a broker who speaks your own language?‚ÄĚ What is the concern here? The agent‚Äôs intent may be to be helpful ‚ÄĒ but the impact may be alienating and isolating the client. It is up to the client which language they wish to be speaking.

Implicit bias may be more likely to manifest when there is a situation involving stress, anxiety or fear, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic. Trauma results from an event, series of events or a set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual and/or communities as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening. We want to believe we are in control of our brains, but these situations may bring out other inclinations.

Putting up guardrails

Real estate professionals must recognize implicit bias and put up guardrails to override bias and provide protections in addition to each individual’s good conscious intentions and internal motivations. 

The Bias Override video recommends real estate firms and agents establish protocols to override and reduce bias and consider the following points:

  1. When meeting or speaking with a new client or customer, think of a happy moment from your life to put you in a good frame of mind. Learn how to manage your mindset so that your interpersonal interactions with clients are respectful and successful.
  2. Focus on what the other person is experiencing and not on what the other person thinks of you.
  3. Always ask for, listen to and abide by the person’s preferences; allow every person to make his or her choices for community or location, features of a house or apartment, price and financing options.
  4. Establish scripts for different aspects of meetings and different questions or issues that may arise. The scripts should not be read or memorized, but have something outlined in writing that can be reviewed and rehearsed. For example, what do you say if there are questions about schools?

Establishing protocols to override bias will help brokerages make sure everyone is treated fairly and equally.

The Bias Override film provides an introduction to how our unconscious brains can get in the way of our values and lead us to treat people based on stereotypes. Bias override is a way to make sure that our behavior aligns with our values. 

Take the Implicit Bias Test

Want to go deeper? 

Take the Implicit Bias test at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit. 

I have taken the Implicit Bias Test twice. Most recently the result was that I have no preference between gay and straight people, and my conscious brain applauds that my unconscious brain is in alignment!

But a test taken a couple of years earlier indicated a bit of a bias against Native Americans. Although I was aghast with the result and my conscious brain strenuously disagrees, this may reflect what some of us saw and heard watching all the TV westerns in years past: the cowboys fought other cowboys in the later years but the fights were against the Native Americans when the settlement of this country first pushed westward. And what about the Lone Ranger and Tonto? Yeesh, what were my parents allowing me to watch?!
But there it is, a possible explanation of those forces buried deep within my unconscious brain that surfaced on that Implicit Bias test.

Do you have any implicit biases?

Debbi Conrad is Senior Attorney and Director of Legal Affairs for the WRA.

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