Tuesday, May 25, 2004
Real Estate Hate Crimes
Listening to talk radio (Dave Ross, I think, on KIRO) this morning, they were discussing a real estate discrimination case in Pierce County, Washington (where Tacoma is, although the case was not in Tacoma), where a seller decided to take one offer over another because the rejected offer was from a single woman. The woman had made the higher offer, and she was pre-approved for the loan needed to buy the house. (She is also engaged to be married.) And the real estate agent was dumb enough to state that her being a single female was the cause of the rejection… which thus gives the evidence necessary for a lawsuit.
The talk show host broached the matter of whether there would be a lawsuit if the rejection had been stated to be because the seller thought the woman was a lesbian (whether she was or not). Because neither Pierce County nor Washington state have laws prohibiting that sort of discrimination — although Seattle and Tacoma do — there wouldn’t be the direct basis for such a lawsuit, although of course it could result in the sort which gets such protections explicitly put on the books.
The host posited that the effect of such laws isn’t to stop such discrimination but rather to drive it underground. I both agree with him and disagree at the same time. By disallowing such discrimination in public transactions, it can have several effects. (1) For some, indeed, it will make them learn to simply be quiet about their attitudes, teaching them that they can do it so long as they don’t say what they are doing. (2) For others, it encourages them to make up some other reason for the discrimination, which leads to silliness like “We can’t allow gay marriages because of the strain it will add to Social Security.” Of course, done often and long enough, that can lead to people dropping their old attitudes in favor of the new ones, ones which may be easier to puncture and train out of people. (3) Some people who are discouraged from being public with their attitudes may finally find that this “breaks the camel’s back”, leading to real change for them. (4) And there are people who were being discriminatory without realizing it — I had a relative who called blacks “Nigras” for years, proud that she wasn’t using the full-on N-word, for example — for whom the institution of penalties for outright discrimination may serve as a wake up call, making them simply change their language to match their underlying attitudes.
Some people will, of course, ask why they can’t sell their home (or conduct whatever business they want to) with whomever they want, however they want. Part of it comes down to whether the business is public or private. If it’s a private transaction, you can sell whatever you want (if it’s legal) to whomever you want for whatever price. But once you move into the public transaction space — listing the home for general sales, for example — you then move into a realm where you have to deal with all comers.
Second, of course, is that you are transacting with an individual, and thus the basis of the transaction must be on the qualities of that individual, not the group they belong to. You sell based on who they are (a person with money), not on what they are (an unmarried woman).
This is the same basis for Hate Crime laws. Yes, murder is always a horrible crime. (Or rape, or assault, or vandalism, or whatever.) But just like we take intent into account when determining how to charge someone — First Degree Murder, Involuntary Manslaughter, etc. — intent is also what is behind Hate Crime (and Discrimination) Laws. When the perpetrator hit or killed someone, or painted graffiti on the wall, was it random? Was it directed at the individual, probably because the victim was known to the attacker, or perhaps because a wad of cash had been seen, or because he was walking in a bad part or town? Or was the person attacked, maybe killed, not for who she was but for what she was (or was perceived to be): black, lesbian, Jewish? If it’s the latter case — if the crime would have occurred no matter who the individual was, if they were attacked because of their (perceived) race or religion or sexual orientation or whatever — then the crime isn’t being done just against an individual, it is being done against an entire group. And that warrants a different examination of the crime, and perhaps a different penalty: part for the affected individual, and part for the targeted larger group.
When someone asks why we need Hate Crime or Anti-Discrimination Laws, I’m reminded of the answer to the question of why a “Gays in Comics” panel was needed at a big comic book convention: “We need it because people keep asking ‘Why do we need it?’” If people don’t understand, then they need to be educated. When they stop asking about it, that’s when you can question whether it’s needed anymore.
Updated on February 1, 2011