Racism in the Opposition of Affordable Housing

This week, a friend approached me with a news article from her hometown that she knew I’d be interested in. Upon reading it, I found that the ties to our class material could not be ignored.

Chappaqua, New York is a wealthy town in Westchester county. Its citizens include former president Bill Clinton, along with many others who have large yearly incomes. The town, however, like most of Westchester county, is predominantly white. The lack of diversity in Chappaqua and Weschester county is so pervasive that a desegregation settlement was passed for the county in 2009. As part of this settlement, an affordable housing project has been proposed in Chappaqua. This project would allow families with smaller incomes to move into an area with better schools and better opportunities for their children without spending a great deal of money on rent. Additionally, the project would bring in a new population of Blacks and Latinos into a homogeneously white town.

While the project has been endorsed by many citizens and politicians, there are those who do not want Chappaqua to go through with the creation of an affordable housing project. One group, Chappaqua for Responsible Affordable Housing, states that the project should be halted because the location of the project would be difficult to access in the case of a fire. However, the town’s fire chief has approved the location and is adamant in defending its safety. If the development would not be unsafe, then why are there still complaints surrounding its construction? For me, the answer lies in subtle, contemporary forms of racism.

This week in class, we discussed the different types of contemporary racism. Two types of racism that I feel apply to the Chappaqua situation are symbolic racism and aversive racism. Symbolic racism is expressed when people possess a negative attitude toward an individual or a group, and recognize it, but do not acknowledge the fact that this attitude is based in the race of the target. In this situation, it is clear that the majority of the residents in Chappaqua’s affordable housing would be black. However, no objections to the project lie in the race of the future residents. Instead, it is possible that some objections may appear to be based in the idea of meritocracy – the wealthy citizens of Chappaqua have worked hard to get where they are, and their society would be brought down by the presence of individuals who have struggled economically or may be on welfare. A citizen may justify their opposition of the project by saying it has nothing to do with the fact that the people who’d benefit from it are predominantly black – it’s just that their welfare status or lack of work ethic would go against Chappaqua’s values. In a wealthy white town, it is easy to imagine this sort of scenario playing out. I believe that symbolic racism has played a role in the opposition of Chappaqua’s affordable housing project.

Another form of racism that is prominent in the modern world is known as aversive racism. Aversive racists uphold egalitarian values, but these values conflict with their underlying, unconscious prejudicial beliefs. Aversive racists do not consciously know that they are racist – in fact, they believe the opposite. They will not discriminate in situations where their actions can be attributed to racism. Instead, it is in ambiguous situations – situations where a justification other than race can be provided – that aversive racists will discriminate and express prejudices. Aversive racism can be detected quite easily in the New York Times article about the Chappaqua housing project. The citizens of Chappaqua would never say that they don’t want black families moving in to their town – that would go against their egalitarian values and would not be socially acceptable. Instead, they have chosen another factor upon which to attribute their rejection of the project – the safety of its location. As civil rights attorney Randolph M. McLaughlin states, “…in an era when discriminatory language might not be publicly palatable, opponents of such projects resort to other explanations.” This paradigm has been illustrated in various studies documenting aversive racism – aversive racists will discriminate when they are able to attribute their opinions to an explanation other than race. This certainly seems to be the case in Chappaqua, New York.

The debate surrounding the construction of an affordable housing complex in Chappaqua has its roots in race and racism. Although few community members would admit it, the rejection of the complex by many citizens can be explained in terms of contemporary racism.