Real Estate Racism: A Social Experiment

Gasping in horror, Scheier's retort was sharp and quick. "I have never in my life, honestly, in my years on this Earth, I have never experienced anybody saying anything like that … That is horrific. I'm embarrassed."

Dovidio praised Scheier's comments as an effective response to racism. "I think she responded wonderfully. She really confronts that situation and she creates a bond with the victims of racism. What she did is something that breaks the norm and that's what makes it heroic."

We wondered if Scheier would be the only one to intervene this way. And would the response be any different if the target of attack was a Muslim couple instead?

Muslim Discrimination

For our next scenario we brought in actors, Fajer and Ann, to pose as a Muslim couple looking to buy a home. We asked the actors to speak with a slight Arabic accent and asked Ann to wear a traditional head scarf.

As soon as the next visitors to the open house walked through the door we cued Margot to begin her new script of racist attacks.

"I'm noticing your attire and your accent and things. You're not American, are you? We don't have a mosque … I don't know that you would be welcome," she said.

The racism is blatant and the insults are hard for even our trained actress to say. While people appear shocked by what they hear, like the earlier scenes with the African-American actors, most walk away and say nothing.

Local residents Roberta Lipman and Gella Seiden, who are both white, gasped in horror when they heard the appalling remarks, but they spoke up about six minutes later, after we cued our actors to engage them directly.

"The thing is, these people are from a country that blew up the World Trade Center," Margot confided to Seiden, a comment that finally set her off.

"They did not blow up the World Trade Center. They did not blow up the World Trade Center!" Seiden exclaimed. "They didn't. I can't have this discussion with you because they look like perfectly normal people to me."

For Lipman, it was Margot's claim to the Muslim couple that no one in the neighborhood would live next to them, that finally caused her to speak up.

"I would live next to her," she told Margot. "There are all kinds of religions here. Everybody goes to their own place to pray and they respect each others' religions and everyone should be treated fairly."

Then we meet Francois Descorbath, whose criticism of Margot was even more direct: "Your conduct is unacceptable!"

Speaking Out Against Racism

It took Descorbath, a black man who is Haitian, no time to react to Margot's racist language.

"Because they have an Arab background, I don't think it makes sense to talk to them like that," he said. "And you know, I have an accent too as you can see so I think your conduct is unacceptable."

Like Scheier's defense of the African-American couple, Descorbath was direct and powerful. "You put your sign is for sale, [it] is for sale for everybody. It's not like there's a list like 'Oh, you are Arab, you're not welcome here.' That is unacceptable."

When we spoke with Descorbath later, he told us he had personally experienced just this type of discrimination many times.

Dovidio gave high marks to Descorbath's response. "That was, again, an impressive response. Rapid, direct … powerful. And in fact, I think in some ways, he showed for me how easy it is to confront racism."

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