Real Estate Racism: A Social Experiment

You hear a seller making racist remarks to potential buyers: do you intervene?

Feb. 9, 2009— -- What would you do if, while touring a $1.4 million home for sale, you overheard a steady stream of blatant racism directed toward an African-American couple?

ABC News decided to find out by rigging a home for sale with hidden cameras and staging an "open house." We then hired a white actress named Margot to play the role of a racist home-seller who doesn't want to sell to African-Americans. Black actors Cezar and Vanessa were the targets of her discriminatory remarks.

When both actors told us they had personally experienced this type of bigotry when house-hunting themselves, we weaved some of their real-life stories into Margot's dialogue.

"Perhaps you're looking for something more urban than suburban," Margot said to the couple while touring the home. "This is a quiet community -- we don't need altercations here. You know, there aren't a lot of your types in this area."

Will other visitors to the open house say anything when they overhear these racist comments, or walk away?

'I Don't Know Where You Come From'

The first visitors to walk in the door were mother and daughter, Dee and Jessica Dolese, who live nearby. As they toured the home and heard Margot's offensive remarks, they at first seemed confused and tried to avoid the scene, moving quickly from room to room.

We cued Margot to say her most astonishing line yet: "We don't have a lot of colored people in this neighborhood." Dee Dolese, who is white, finally reached her limit and gave our racist seller an earful.

"I'm appalled. You obviously don't live in this town because we do and everybody is welcome here. I don't know where you come from but I've got to go now. I'm throwing up," she said.

The next visitor, local realtor George Walsh, also white, wasn't nearly as vocal.

"We have a very nice calm neighborhood, you know," Margot told the couple. "We don't have a lot of altercations and things like that. We don't have people, you know…"

Cezar asked, "You think we bring trouble?"

"Well, you know. I don't know," Margot responded.

Walsh smiled and shook his head.

Although we could tell by his facial expressions that he had heard at least some of Margot's racist comments, like most people touring the home, his initial response was to walk away. After about eight minutes he approached Cezar, Vanessa and Margot and tried to end the offensive conversations.

"I don't know that you're going to accomplish anything more. Why don't you just look at the house?" he said to the couple.

He gave our actors his business card and told them to call if they needed a home-seller.

When we spoke with Walsh later he told us he was astounded by what he had heard, especially given that this is the 21st century.

Yale University social psychologist Jack Dovidio said that while Walsh's response seemed sincerely concerned and sympathetic, "If you're really concerned about racism, you have to take an active step and confront the racist."

'That Is Horrific'

We then met Mindy Scheier, a young white mother who took no time at all to respond to Margot's bigotry. As soon as Scheier heard our actress tell Cezar and Vanessa their children might not "fit in" at the local schools, Scheier instantly jumped in, assuring the couple their children would indeed fit in. But it was our racist homeowner's next comment that really set Scheier off.

"These are people who aren't … well, I don't think they're 'like us,'" she confided to Scheier.

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."