Several years ago, I asked my friend Stephen, who is Black, how he felt about hearing a white person use the N-word. He replied, “When a white person uses the N-word, they are telling me exactly who they are. It’s the white person who tells me I didn’t get the job that worries me. I never know if that was because I was less qualified or because I am Black.” While I thought Stephen’s response profound, I didn’t fully understand this dimension of racism until this past month.
I didn’t understand the terrible weight of not knowing.
This past month, I changed our homeowner’s insurance from one carrier to another. It is something I’ve done a dozen times over the years without incident. This time, three weeks after switching companies, the new company sent us a cancellation notice – something I’d never experienced or heard of others experiencing. The cancellation notice gave no rationale for this decision and a phone number to call for more information.
When I called that phone number, a representative of the insurance company informed me that during the drive by inspection of our home, the underwriter had determined our roof was old and in disrepair and recommended cancellation. This seemed rather odd since our roof is less than 15 years old. When I asked if we could dispute the cancellation, the representative agreed to review our case.
When the representative called me back, she admitted to considerable confusion on her part. She said, “I review a lot of these cases and your house does not fit our criteria for cancellation. I don’t understand why the underwriter made this decision. Your roof looks fine in the photos.” After a couple of days of back and forth with the underwriter, the company restored our coverage.
I’ve thought a lot about what happened. Why, after years of companies driving by our house to confirm our description of our house, did this drive by inspection result in a cancellation? What was different? Same house. Same neighborhood. Same answers on the insurance questions. The only difference I can think of is that we now have a “Black Lives Matter” sign on our front door.
Is it possible that the underwriter saw the “Black Lives Matter” sign and assumed we were a Black family? Is it possible that the company had a policy – unwritten – to look for any reason to deny coverage to Black families? Was racism the reason our policy was cancelled?
We’ll never know, but I wonder.
This is the point where many white people will shake their heads and think, “He always makes everything about race. There are a dozen other explanations for his insurance being cancelled.” That is certainly possible. This is also the response my friend, Stephen, has learned to expect from white people when he wonders if he didn’t get the job because he is Black. White people love to consider anything, but racism. We ignore the possibility that we live a world where people and companies might deny insurance coverage to someone simply because of the color of their skin. We do this even when we know such things happen.
In April of 2000, Nationwide Insurance settled a racial discrimination lawsuit that proved the following:
- Nationwide racially profiled neighborhoods.
- Nationwide actively discouraged agents from selling insurance in black neighborhoods.
- Nationwide used unsound underwriting to exclude Black families.
- Nationwide denied coverage and cancelled insurance for Black homeowners.
A jury in Virginia found Nationwide guilty of all these racial discriminations and rewarded $100 million in damages. After an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, Nationwide eventually agreed to pay $18 million in damages. In the settlement, Nationwide did not admit guilt or commit to changing its coverage or underwriting policies.
What this company was doing was not unique. There is continuing evidence of significant and discriminatory differences in appraisals, mortgage rates, loan conditions, inspections, insurance and sale prices for homes owned by Black homeowners. Just this year in Indianapolis, Carletta, a Black friend of mine, had her home appraised for $110,000 when the actual value was about $260,000. She is suing the appraiser.
The family of Erica and Aaron Parker who had their house appraised at $465,000. The couple decided to replace all their family pictures with pictures of a white family and had their appraisal come in at $557,000. Freddie Mac, the federal organization monitoring home loans, analyzed their voluminous data of national appraisals and found huge disparities between appraisals of Black and white owned homes in the same neighborhoods.
This is where some of my white friends will argue that appraisals from two different appraisers are bound to differ. How do we really know if race was the primary factor?
We’ll never know for sure.
This is one of the dimensions of racism I never understood until this past month.
I never understood the terrible weight of not knowing.
As a white person, until this past month, I’ve always known.
Nothing negative ever happened to me because of the color of my skin. Indeed, many positive things – most of which I am unaware – happen to me. When something negative does happen, I can be fairly certain the explanation given to me is true, or at least it has nothing to do with my race.
This is one of the subtle advantages of being white in America.
We get to know.