By Melvina Ford

I have apparently reached that age when you start to have friends with children in college or on their way there. Perhaps that’s why Iappa’ve started paying more attention to who is speaking at what college commencement, whether my life (20 years post-graduation) measures up to the inspiring addresses, and what enduring messages I should be teaching my far from college bound 4 year old.

This year, I was enthused by the remarks of Attorney General Eric Holder at Morgan State University’s commencement ceremony on May 17, 2014:

[W]e ought not find contentment in the fact that these high-profile expressions of outright bigotry seem atypical and were met with such swift condemnation. Because if we focus solely on these incidents – . . . – we are likely to miss the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines.  . . . [T]he greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper. And their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and obvious, ignorant expressions of hatred have been marginalized.

I was as appalled as the rest of the world when I heard the stories of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rant, and even more appalled when I heard about the allegations in the housing discrimination cases from years earlier in which he was a defendant.  At the same time, I wondered if the incident would allow, or even encourage, others to pat themselves on the back and say, “I’m not like that,” all the while ignoring the very real discrimination that plays out every day in the lives of their friends and colleagues.

Attorney General Holder gave an eloquent voice to my fear, and the work I am now blessed to do is its antidote.

The core of the Equal Rights Center’s (ERC) work is to engage in civil rights testing to identify unlawful discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations and government services.  Testing is a controlled process designed to identify differences in treatment accorded to individuals who are similar in every significant respect except the variable being tested (i.e., race, color, national origin, disability, gender or religion). Testing is an important investigation tool that has been recognized by courts, administrative agencies, researchers and experts across the country.

Take, for example, civil rights testing to identify discrimination in the sale of housing.  Natalie and Sarah stop in to inquire about a condo for sale in the District of Columbia. Each asks the agent about the availability of special incentives.  The agent talks to Natalie about escalation clauses, tells her how offering to pay more could get her the property and tells her she will need to have $40,000+ in cash for closing.  The same day, the agent tells Sarah that the price is negotiable.  The only discernible difference between Natalie and Sarah is that Natalie is African American and Sarah is White. I wish I could say I made this example up to make a point, but I didn’t. This is just one example from the hundreds of civil rights test conducted by ERC testers every year.

Had this not been a test and had Natalie and Sarah been out shopping to actually buy that condo, I’m guessing Natalie would have been pretty discouraged and looked elsewhere.  While Sarah might have felt encouraged to submit an offer and negotiate for a lower prince.  The point is – neither Natalie nor the public ever would have known that Sarah was being encouraged to move into the neighborhood by being offered a better deal.

Subtle?  Maybe.  Illegal?  Absolutely.  Resulting media frenzy? Absolutely not.

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