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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dialing Mrs. Murphy (Or, Me Talk Pretty One Day)

I began the search for temporary housing by scouring Craigslist. I had been making calls for months, but now it was time to nail something down. I found a promising ad: fully furnished, all utilities included, Internet and parking. The pictures looked great. Maybe a little more heavily decorated than I’d like, but the place looked well kept. I made the call. Someone picked up on the first ring, whereupon I stated my reason for calling, trying to sound at once business like and warm and friendly. After listening patiently, the person on the other end asked me to hold while she switched phones. She returned and began telling me about the apartment.

“It’s my father’s place. He’s away visiting in Ireland. We figure we may as well make some money since he’ll be gone for so long. It’s part of my house, downstairs. It’s in the nice part of town so you don’t have to worry about security.” The woman had an Irish accent which grew more pronounced as she continued. “We want someone who doesn’t smoke, has no pets, and is the right sort. It is my home, you know. You’ll have to call back and talk to my husband and he can schedule the showing. You sound respectable, you said you’re a law professor, is that right?”

“Yes, I teach in Cleveland. I don’t smoke, and while I like pets I don’t really have time for or interest in caring for any so I have none.” I said it all rather too quickly. After her comments, I felt as if everything I was saying was a lie. Am I the right sort? Will I be a blight on the neighborhood's niceness and security? Am I respectable, or do I just sound as if I am?

Why would I wonder such about such things? Then it hit me.

She probably thinks that I’m white. Why wouldn’t she? I speak crisp, standard, Northeastern U.S. English with, I’m told, a vague hint of Californian that betrays my Los Angeles upbringing. Most people who speak as I do and have the job that I do are, statistically speaking, white. They are also probably men, but the register of my voice no doubt gives away my gender. So, if she thought I was white, she could certainly be forgiven for thinking so. I struggled mightily to curb the impulse to say: “I’m black; will that be a problem?” I didn’t want to ask because I didn’t look forward to any of the three possible responses I envisioned hearing: 1) stunned silence then a stammered “no” which really meant “yes” 2) stunned silence followed by “Yes, it matters”, followed by polite dismissal (or a click as the receiver was hung up) 3) stunned silence followed by righteous indignation at having been asked about whether race figures in such matters (“We’re all post racial now!”). None of the three possible outcomes seemed attractive. I suddenly feared that I had called the wrong number. Could it be...Mrs. Murphy in the flesh?

Many of you know the hypothetical Mrs. Murphy of Fair Housing Act fame.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act (FHA) proscribed discrimination in most housing transactions on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin. It contained a noteworthy exception, the so-called “Mrs. Murphy” clause found in 42 U.S.C. §3603(b). This section, in brief, allowed landlords who were owner-occupiers of small scale multiple dwelling units or owners of few rental properties to discriminate. Mrs. Murphy, so named during the legislative debates surrounding the clause, was the hypothetical small landlady who ran a boarding house, or perhaps owned a duplex apartment building and resided in one unit while renting the other. Such persons, legislators argued at the time of the enacting of the FHA, should be able to rent their housing as they saw fit, given the small, intimate settings in which their rentals occurred. The exceptions in the FHA, however, did not include discriminatory housing statements or advertising. Under the FHA, Mrs. Murphy could discriminate racially but could not advertise or state that she was doing so. Mrs. Murphy could, for reasons of race, silently turn down applicants who presented themselves. (There are other legal non-discrimination norms that might proscribe Mrs. Murphy’s silent but racist inspired refusal to rent; these I leave for another time.)

I have had my share of racist experiences while searching for housing. (See my blog post How Now, Brown? Parents Involved in Community Schools and the Triumph of Color Blind Ideology.) In recent years, however, when I have mostly sought short term accommodations, I have generally avoided such incidents by dealing with large, impersonal entities such as corporate housing providers who really only care about whether I can pay. When I do deal with smaller, private providers of accommodations, I generally am known to the provider or am otherwise “pre-approved.” In short, I try to avoid the potential Mrs. Murphys of the world altogether.

With the advent of Craigslist, people who would have advertised their housing with a sign in the yard or maybe an advertisement in the local newspaper can now offer their housing to a national or even international Internet audience. So, Mrs. Murphy now has global reach. Really, anyone may dial her number. A caller’s manner of speaking may often reveal gender and sometimes race to her. Thanks to a greater number of integrated social and educational interactions than used to be common, all too often people of diverse racial backgrounds sound like, well, people of non-diverse racial backgrounds. They sound white ("Speaking Standard English is not 'sounding white'," you say! Yeah, I know that song...). When these people telephone out into the world, whether they set out to do so or not, they are phone passing.

Black people know that I mean. Phone passing is when you call to order goods or services and you breeze through the interaction using your best Standard English voice, knowing that in many cases the person on the other end of the line probably assumes your whiteness and treats you accordingly. Not treating you well, necessarily, just neutrally. You get that nice, even, default customer service mode. There’s nothing funnier (in that wry, sad-funny way) than when you arrive to claim the book you placed on hold at the book store (the last one of its type in stock) or to get your vacuum cleaner fixed after talking to the repairman on the phone (who stayed late to accommodate you) only to be confronted with a puzzled “Oh, was that you who called ?” Most such vendors shrug it off and continue to offer the same level of service they offered on the phone. Some are visibly perturbed by what they no doubt see as racial identity fraud and set about giving what is clearly an inferior level of service.

Phone passing presents a thornier situation when it comes to negotiating for longer term arrangements such as housing or jobs. On the one hand, there is an ethic of non-discrimination that theoretically prevails which would eliminate the need for one to announce one’s race. On the other hand, there is the sober reality that race may especially matter in smaller, more intimate situations and the sooner one puts it on the table, the better. I came to that conclusion years ago when first applying for legal jobs. I attended a good number of interviews with interviewers who were clearly flummoxed by the seeming mismatch between my face and my resume. I learned to avoid awkward interactions by prominently listing on my CV items such as “Black Law Students Association Co-Chair” and “National Urban League Scholarship Winner” in order to tip off potential employers.

In the case of my potential Mrs. Murphy, I chose not to give any indication of my race but, the truth is, I have no intention of calling back to schedule an appointment. Am I being unfair in not giving this a try? Maybe. But there’s just too much chance for unpleasantness, and that would be unfair to both of us, non-discrimination norms notwithstanding.

Too bad. She sounded like a nice lady.

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