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Housing Discrimination Can Happen to Celebrities (and also to Antonio Banderas)

Racial discrimination in housing has been an unfortunate legacy of this country’s tumultuous history with respect to race relations.

While there are federal and state laws meant to curb racial discrimination in housing, and they have certainly reduced its occurrence, it still happens. Landlords and sellers who are determined to discriminate based on race have simply gotten really sneaky about it.

Most people assume, however, that the victims of racial discrimination are only low-income and anonymous. However, if allegations against an upscale apartment complex are true, minority celebrities can just as easily be victims of racial discrimination.

A lawsuit has been filed against the co-op board of the famous Dakota apartment building in New York City alleges that they discriminated against the likes of Antonio Banderas, Roberta Flack, and Alphonse Fletcher Jr., an African-American Wall Street investor.

Specifically, Roberta Flack, the famous singer, alleges that an application with the co-op board to install a new bathtub was repeatedly denied, for reasons that weren’t sufficiently explained, and that she was made to take the service elevator when she was with her pet dogs, while white residents who owned dogs were allowed to take them in the normal elevator.

Some of the other allegations are pretty explosive, too. The lawsuit claims that the co-op board suggested that a Hispanic applicant, who was rejected, wanted a first floor apartment so he could more easily buy drugs off the street. The timing and other facts suggest that this applicant was Mr. Banderas. The suit also claims that the co-ob board referred to one couple as members of the “Jewish mafia.”

Now, you may be saying to yourself “I’m sure these celebrities can go home to their current opulent apartments and cry themselves to sleep in their mattresses made of money, and they’ll feel just fine in the morning.” After all, rich and famous celebrities probably don’t face a lot of the same day-to-day problems that the average person (and, by extension, the average victim of racial discrimination) faces.

That doesn’t mean that these allegations are any less serious, however. Under the federal Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to discriminate in the sale, rental, or financing a residence based on race, sex, national origin, religion, and physical disability. In addition, several states have laws that prohibit discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and a few other categories not covered by federal law.

If even some of the allegations in this lawsuit are proven in court, it will definitely stain the reputation of a venerable New York institution.

But what it exposes is that racial discrimination is not just a “low-class” problem, which is how it’s often viewed, and portrayed in the media. This goes for both the victims and the perpetrators of racial discrimination.

It also shows that racial discrimination in housing isn’t limited to the stereotypically “backward” portions of the country, like the South. The takeaway is clear: if racial discrimination can happen in one of the premier institutions in liberal New York City, it can happen just about anywhere.

What can we do about this? Well, most Americans have been asking themselves what we should “do about” racism since the Civil War. Everyone seems to agree that it’s a problem, and yet it persists. I don’t pretend to have the answers, unless…hold on…let me try something.


I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that that didn’t work. But it was worth a shot.

Seriously, I have no idea what to do about racial discrimination in housing. I think the laws we have in place are a good start, but I question whether more laws would really have much of an impact. Because, as we’ve seen, if someone really wants to discriminate, they’re going to find a way. And we also don’t want antidiscrimination laws to become so onerous that the majority of landlords who don’t engage in unlawful discrimination don’t have to bend over backwards to prove as much, increasing their costs, and the price of housing, which isn’t good for anyone.

Perhaps simply raising awareness of the issue, and exposing the perpetrators of racial discrimination to public scorn (which lawsuits like this do), is the best way to minimize discrimination in the long run. After all, social taboos are, in many ways, far more effective at curbing undesirable behavior than laws.

Ken LaMance


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