In John Sayles’ 1984 movie The Brother From Another Planet, a card shark is riding a northbound A train that is about to make the 66-block jump from Midtown to Harlem. “I have another magic trick for you,” he says. “Wanna see me make all the white people disappear?” The conductor announces the train is going express, skipping the Upper West Side; white passengers disembark.
The joke is a bit outdated; a 40-year exodus of black Americans and the more recent influx of gentrifying whites put blacks in the minority in Greater Harlem a decade ago. But it speaks to a familiar truth about the way that even urbane, liberal whites think about black neighborhoods: as places not to go. In nearly every city, white yuppies have boundaries that can be invoked without further explanation: In Charleston, for years, it was north of Calhoun. In D.C., east of 16th. (Both those cities have gentrified too.)
Courtney Bonam used to hear a version of that in Chicago, where she taught psychology and African American studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, before joining the University of California, Santa Cruz. “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I don’t want to live on the South Side because black people live there.’ But I’ve often heard people say, ‘I wouldn’t live south of Roosevelt or west of Western.’ That’s coded language and people feel just fine making comments like that.”
In a series of studies, Bonam has found that white Americans hold ironclad stereotypes about black neighborhoods—even when they display little or no animus toward black people. They’re likely to infer from the presence of a black family that a neighborhood is “impoverished, crime-ridden, and dirty,” though they make none of those assumptions about an identical white family in the same house. They’ll knock the value of a house down by $20,000, or nearly 15 percent, if they believe the neighborhood is black. Even after being explicitly told a neighborhood’s home prices and demographics, white participants showed a massive divergence in their perception of the neighborhood’s class depending on whether they thought it was black or white
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