Housing discrimination is illegal, and most Americans express egalitarian beliefs on race. But while unused and largely forgotten, Hoyt’s hierarchy retains its symbolic force in housing markets, albeit in diminished and simplified form. Indeed, real-estate racism helps illustrate the extent to which culture is built by institutions and individuals, in interactions that reflect on each other. These institutions, private and public, didn’t cause racism in housing markets, but they gave it official sanction, which—over time—influenced how individuals understood the value of their homes and neighborhoods. A White neighborhood was a good one; a Black neighborhood, a bad one.

We see this in public opinion. Twenty-eight percent of Whites support an individual homeowner’s right to discriminate on the basis of race when selling a home, note researchers in their analysis of the General Social Survey, a long-running study that measures Americans’ attitudes on a wide range of topics. Likewise, when asked in 2008, 20 percent of Whites said their ideal neighborhood was all White, 25 percent said it had no Blacks, and 33 percent said it had neither Hispanics nor Asians. And only 25 percent of White respondents said they would live in a neighborhood where one-half of their neighbors were Black.