Community associations are a great place to live, work and play. However, like everything else, they can be better. One of the ways that some of our associations can improve is in the area or racial relationships. Very few, if any, associations openly address racial relations with their communities. Fewer still acknowledge that racial issues affect their community in any way. Even those that know that racial issues exist within their community rarely address them voluntarily…until a fair housing complaint or the threat of one arises. Time does not permit us to cover the waterfront on this issue, but there is a subtopic that is worth considering and addressing within your community – implicit racial bias.
I’m sure that no one reading this feels that they engage in outright racial discrimination or that the leadership of your community does either.
For the sake of this conversation, let’s just say that old fashioned open racial discrimination is a thing of the past that was vanquished by the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act back in the sixties. However, there lingers a less insidious, but still pernicious form of racial discrimination in the form of implicit racial bias.
It is the form where one engages in racial discrimination without thinking about or even recognizing it. It is the type where one treats people differently based on conscious or subconscious assumptions about people because of their race. This can lead to different levels of enforcement against them, reduced tolerance for infractions that are overlooked in others, greater willingness to defer maintenance of their units than for others, etc. If you find that your community engages in this type of conduct, there are things that can be done to help your leaders to recognize that they are susceptible to implicit bias and to overcome that bias.
The first step is to recognize that your leadership, or members of your leadership, are engaged in implicit bias. Whether they recognize or admit it’s existence, the proof is in the manner in which they interact with minorities within the community on the basis of race or national origin. If your leadership is not openly against, but nonetheless is treating minorities less favorably than majority members, then the leadership would benefit from some introspective work, formal sensitivity training by fair housing experts, or a fair housing primer by the association’s attorney. I have conducted many such sessions to help boards to see how their practices evidence implicit bias and expose them and their association to fair housing claims. This education is helpful in cases where there may be one dominant board member or covenants committee member who is bringing their biases into association operations to the disadvantage of minority members of their community. Often board member and committee members do not recognize that their pattern of conduct shows that they are more understanding and lenient with people who look like them than they are with those who do not. Often most of the members of the board are uncomfortable with those members who allow their biases to affect their actions or decisions and they appreciate a forum for opening discussion on the issue so that it can be addressed in a professional manner before it becomes the subject of a fair housing complaint. Sometimes, unfortunately, the discussion occurs in the context of analyzing a pending fair housing case or in the context of a conciliation session during a fair housing case. That’s not the best time to address it, but it is often the time when you have everyone’s attention. During settlement sessions, the impact of implicit bias becomes clear and enables the board to see a path to resolving the case, and more importantly the conduct that gave rise to the case.
Ideally, though, we can engage in honest self-analysis to examine our communities’ practices to discern where implicit biases may have creeped into our association’s operations and take steps to stop it on our own. Doing so can help improve relations within your community, lower tensions and improve the overall sense of community within your association. Sure, there are lots of communities that have absolutely no problems with racial relationships within their associations. Those are to be celebrated. For the remaining associations that have them but haven’t addressed them, taking a look at your operations to see whether implicit biases are a factor in your operations would be a worthwhile exercise.
By Wil Washington, ESQ., CCAL
Wil is a principal and founding member the law firm of Chadwick, Washington, Moriarty, Elmore & Bunn, P.C. He is a past president of the Washington Metropolitan Chapter of the Community Associations Institute and a member of the College of Community Association Lawyers.