Studies examine racial bias in pollution

African American family, house, and Caucasian familyPresent-day racial biases may contribute to the pollution and devaluation of lower- and middle-class black communities, according to research led by a UIC social psychologist.

The investigation was based on several studies demonstrating that physical spaces, such as houses or neighborhoods, are targets of racial stereotyping, discrimination and implicit racial bias.

The researchers found study participants applied negative stereotypes, such as “impoverished,” “crime-ridden,” or “dirty,” in their perceptions of physical spaces associated with black Americans.

“These space-focused stereotypes can make people feel less connected to a space, assume it has low-quality characteristics, monetarily devalue it, and dampen its protection from environmental harms,” said Courtney Bonam, assistant professor of psychology and the study’s lead author.

“Some of the findings show that space-focused stereotypes figuratively pollute the way observers imagine a target area and their judgment about an existing structure in it, while other work demonstrates how this presumed figurative pollution leads observers to consider literally polluting black space.”

Bonam said the findings are relevant to recent examples of pollution exposure, such as the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, and East Chicago, Indiana, and also provide insights into the longstanding racial wealth gap in the United States.

One study asked a national sample of more than 400 white U.S. citizens to read a proposal to build a potentially hazardous chemical plant near a residential neighborhood. Half of the participants were told the nearby neighborhood is mostly black, while the other half was told that the area is mostly white.

Even though all participants read the same proposal, they were less likely to report opposition to building the chemical plant when the nearby neighborhood was mostly black.

“They assumed it was an industrial area when it was black, which led them to devalue and subsequently pollute the land there,” Bonam said. “Additionally, these findings held when participants were told that the neighborhood had middle-class property values; and when accounting both for participants’ perceptions of the neighborhood’s class level, and their negative attitudes toward black people in general.”

In another study, a national sample of more than 200 white U.S. citizens were given pictures of the same middle-class, suburban house. Half of the people were told the house was in a predominately black neighborhood, while the other segment was informed that it was in a mostly white neighborhood.

Those who thought the house was in a black neighborhood estimated its value at $20,000 less than the other group, and were less likely to say they would live in or buy the house.

The researchers said people racially stereotyped the surrounding area by
assuming it had lower quality services and amenities when it was a black neighborhood.

A different study asked a racially diverse sample of 30 U.S. citizens living in the San Francisco Bay area to evaluate the same middle-class suburban house, which they were told was for sale. When the homeowners were pictured as a black family, respondents evaluated the home more negatively than when it was shown as being sold by a white family.

Bonam notes the bias in these cases is directed at racialized physical space, and it operates even without negative attitudes toward black people.

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