by Carl F. Horowitz by Carl F. Horowitz
Courage, it would seem, lately has become a commodity in short supply at the major television networks. Attuned to the ever-present possibility of a one-two punch of a shaming/boycott campaign and a government lawsuit, any network airing subject matter deemed too hot to handle is more likely to genuflect before authority than stick to its guns. We saw this in early November 2003, when CBS canned its scheduled miniseries, "The Reagans," in the face of complaints from outraged conservatives (most of whom hadn't even seen the show); CBS passed this hot potato along to its sister pay-cable channel, Showtime. We saw this again the following February, when executives at CBS and its parent company, Viacom, practically groveled before Congress and the general public in the wake of a few nanoseconds of an inadvertently bared breast at a Super Bowl halftime show.
Now ABC has joined the ranks of the spineless. On Wednesday, June 29 the network announced it would drop its planned six-part reality show, "Welcome to the Neighborhood," scheduled to debut this Sunday, July 10, as a summer-season replacement for its top-rated series, "Desperate Housewives." The show's revelations might not be as steamy as those from Wisteria Lane, but the plot line is intriguing all the same: Seven families would compete to win a four-bedroom single-family home on a suburban Austin, Tex. cul de sac; the previous owner had just moved. Each home seeker would be drawn from a social segment presumably shunned in genteel America. One prospective family would be black; another would be Hispanic; and another would be Korean. Also in the running were a gay white male couple (with an adopted black child), a husband-wife couple with extensive tattoos and piercings, a pagan Wiccan family, and a white family whose mom is a stripper.
The catch was that the three existing families on the block — all white, middle class, and thus presumably in need of enlightening — would pick from among the contestants the family they wanted for neighbors. One by one, six prospective house seekers would be eliminated from contention; the seventh and remaining family would get the key. All segments had been filmed and ready for broadcasting. An advance screening showed the Korean-Americans as the first family to go, with the Wiccans next.
At bottom, the show is an old-fashioned, 60s-style liberal morality play about overcoming prejudice. Its message is clear: The oddballs next door might not be so odd once you get to know them. The series could have been pared down to a single-evening special to no ill effect, but even in drawn-out, nail-biting, soap-opera incarnation, it is difficult to imagine anyone being harmed. Unfortunately, certain civil-rights organizations didn't see things that way.
Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), for one, was not amused. The NFHA has threatened legal action against ABC if it airs the program, citing the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which bans discrimination in providing housing accommodations on the basis of race, national origin or religion. "There are a lot of things about the show that are offensive, and that doesn't break the law," Smith huffed. "What breaks the law is you have these families who are making decisions about who moves into their neighborhood on the basis of race, national origin and religion." The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation also expressed concerns. While the show promoted a valuable message about diversity and acceptance, admitted GLAAD spokesman Damon Romine, the show could have been interpreted by the uninitiated that discrimination is "not that big a deal."
Equally fatuous was the position taken by certain religious conservative groups, such as the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, who saw the show as fanning the flames of anti-Christian "bigotry." ABC, they charged, was depicting born-again evangelicals as crude, narrow-minded dolts. Especially galling to them was a scene in which the head of a voting family informed a contestant that the block is conservative, Christian, and pro-Bush. Oh, do spare us. About the only thing this brief scene "proves" is that Christians prefer, though not necessarily as a hard and fast rule, to live among other Christians. So what? Most Jews would prefer to have at least a few Jews as neighbors, too. That's called freedom of association — and human nature.
Ever sensitive to interest-group pressure, however, the Disney-owned ABC knuckled under. The company spun the bad news this way:
"Our intention with u2018Welcome to the Neighborhood' was to show the transformative process that takes place when people are forced to confront preconceived notions of what makes a good neighbor, and we believe the series delivers exactly that. However, the fact that true change only happens over time made the episodic nature of this series challenging, and given the sensitivity of the subject matter in early episodes, we have decided not to air the series at this time."
The National Fair Housing Alliance's Smith praised ABC Television President Alex Wallau for his "support for civil rights and sensitivity to race and ethnic relations in the United States." But she also warned that any future airing of the show would constitute a "malicious" attack on her group and other housing-rights activists. In the context of NFHA's longstanding working relationship with the civil-rights office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), it's not too difficult to imagine what Smith has in mind in the way of corrective action.
If such critics weren't so thin-skinned — or litigious — they might grasp the underlying significance of "Welcome to the Neighborhood." The program, on the surface, is an exercise in overcoming prejudice, albeit from a banal, can't-we-all-just-get-along rainbow worldview. But underneath, though most likely unintentionally, it is also an excellent primer on the workings of market process, and why subverting that process can easily backfire. How so?
Making an economic decision requires some measure of forethought. A person employs calculation, however brief or crude, to weigh the advantages and drawbacks of competing alternatives. Logic dictates that the greater the cost of two or more similar items, the greater the cost of making the wrong choice. In such a situation, a person will take more time to arrive at a decision. A car, for example, costs far more than a restaurant meal. Thus, deciding whether to buy a mid-sized Toyota or a mid-sized Ford will occupy one's mind far longer than deciding whether to take the family out to Bennigan's or Appleby's.
But something more than price is at work. For the calculus of decision-making also must consider the length of time necessary to undo negative consequences. Making the wrong choice in a car purchase, even with a state anti-lemon law in effect, is more problematic than making the wrong choice in a bicycle purchase. Likewise, an employer's mistake in an executive-search decision carries far greater consequences than a mistake in a search for entry-level help. What tens of millions of TV viewers have found so fascinating about NBC's "The Apprentice" is the selection process at work. Better than most, the show's star, Donald Trump, knows the consequences of putting the wrong person in charge of a company division. Whether or not young adult viewers plan to work for Trump is secondary to the fact that they can learn how a boss (perhaps their own future boss?) judges prospective candidates. As for that most important economic decision of all — marriage — most of us know from first- or second-hand experience the consequences of marrying the wrong person; that's why young adults tend to go through an intensive vetting process known as "dating."
Housing choices require extensive forethought as well, from the standpoint of future and especially (i.e., in the context of "Welcome to the Neighborhood") existing residents. It is a reality that residents of a neighborhood or apartment building exert at least some veto power over who gets to live among them. You don't think so? Try buying a co-op in midtown Manhattan, and see how easy it is. Even in the absence of direct collective decision-making, community residents may screen newcomers by bringing pressure upon local government to enact or modify zoning and other land-use ordinances. They also may prefer to list properties for sale through real estate agents with a reputation for acceding to local wishes.
Does this gatekeeper function yield fair results? That depends on the definition of "fair." It is neither fair nor legal, for example, if residents of a racially homogenous neighborhood intimidate a fellow neighbor to prevent him from selling to someone of another race (not that intimidating the buyer is an improvement). But it is intimidation, not the attitudes that lead to it, that constitutes the lawbreaking — at least where moral justice prevails. All people, regardless of background, discriminate; that is to say, they voluntarily choose one alternative course of action over another. This is especially so in a neighborhood of homeowners. One's neighborhood, fraught with symbolic value, functions as defended territory, not simply as housing. Having a neighbor from hell is about the last thing anyone wants when he's got hundreds of thousands of dollars tied up in his property.
Vested with direct veto power, a group of people will tend to think very carefully about whom they want as their neighbors, especially if they know that family is getting the house for free. They can't forcibly interfere with participants in a buyer-seller transaction. But if the decision is legally theirs — as it is in "Welcome to the Neighborhood" — the exercise of a veto is a basic right. In an ideal world, people would base their preferences for neighbors on the basis of character and personality, not race or religion. But that world does not exist.
The premise of "Welcome to the Neighborhood" is benign. As a controlled experiment that probes how people, in unguarded moments, select their neighbors, the show, if anything, is more likely to combat than promote bigotry. But even more importantly, it enables us to better understand why "discriminatory" behavior in housing markets so often occurs, despite costly and time-consuming crusades against it by HUD and the Justice Department. Thanks to a pair of self-righteous censorship campaigns, one waged by the egalitarian Left and the other by the religious Right, this is one lesson that's not going to be televised.
Here's a coda for those who like happy endings: The winning family already has been selected; their identity will be announced in August.
- Becker, Gary. The Economics of Discrimination, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
- Perin, Constance. Everything in Its Place: Social Order and Land Use in America, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.
- "Reality Show on Housing Pulled," (Reuters), Washington Times, July 1, 2005.
- Suttles, Gerald D. The Social Construction of Communities, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.
Carl F. Horowitz [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-area consultant on housing, labor, welfare and immigration issues. He holds a Ph.D. in urban planning and policy development from Rutgers University.