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Black real estate agents overcome Boston-area bigotry

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Real estate broker Charles George at a recent open house. Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

The house is a choice piece of property — big and newly renovated and at a great price.

Within days of listing it, real estate broker Charles George was fielding calls from potential buyers eager to meet with him. But he’s gotten quite a different response from those who already live on the street. When he greets them, there’s no response. “They almost specifically avoid making eye contact,’’ said George. “I’ve been here enough in the past few weeks where you’d think they’d become familiar with me.’’

After 17 years selling real estate, he’s used to it. “A lot of that is just being up North,’’ said George, who was raised in Alabama. “And a lot of it is … just being a black man.’’

Similar stuff happened to George in his previous career as a software engineer. But at least nobody ever called the police on him. That’s happened twice in his real estate career, while he was showing houses in Milton and Easton.

Yet George’s story isn’t about the persistence of racism. It’s mainly about the persistence of George, and the fact that he’s prospered in real estate despite the lingering effects of racial prejudice. The same can be said for many black real estate professionals in Greater Boston. Discrimination, exclusion, and casual bigotry are facts of life for them, but so is success.

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George chats with Troy and Latoya Gayle of Dorchester at a recent open house. —Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

To be sure, the price of success is higher for African-Americans, who must cope with persistent doubts about their competence.

“Sometimes you can tell right off the bat that the color thing is … I don’t want to say a barrier, but an unknown thing that makes the client uncomfortable,’’ said Zouk Mo, an agent with Keller Williams Realty in Boston.

White buyers and sellers aren’t the only skeptics. “Even in your own black neighborhoods you get the issue,’’ said Melvin Vieira Jr., an agent with RE/Max Destiny in Jamaica Plain. “Sometimes they think the person who doesn’t look like them is going to do a better job.’’

It’s an old problem for African-Americans in every field, and Boston’s black real estate pros respond with an array of successful strategies.

First, look like you know what you’re doing. “As a black man, I’m very keen on my presentation,’’ said George. “I walk a very specific way. I drive a very specific car, I dress a very specific way, and I try to be as non-threatening as possible.’’

Next, actually know what you’re doing. “You have to know more than the next,’’ said Vieira. “You have to have more credentials next to your name than the next for the door even to be cracked open.’’

Mo, who holds a degree in finance from Suffolk University, usually works past this fault line by proving his expertise. “If they see that you’re very sharp and knowledgeable,’’ he said, “then they don’t see the color anymore.’’

It also helps to work for a large, well-known realty firm. “That’s why I stay with big companies,’’ said Vieira, who works with RE/Max, a nationwide network of real estate agencies. “Even if they have second thoughts about me, they look at the company.’’

It doesn’t always work. Vieira recently took a phone call from a potential seller who seemed interested in having him list the house. But when Vieira showed up, the homeowner said the place had already been sold. Vieira is certain that his race was the deal-killer. “It happens more than you’d think it does,’’ he said. “But what I’ve learned to do is to let it go and to keep keeping on.’’

Black real estate agents often take responsibility to help other minorities through the home-buying process. Linda Champion, managing broker at CUE Realty in Roxbury, specializes in buyers with limited incomes. Most are minorities and many are immigrants from places like Cape Verde, the Dominican Republic, China, and Vietnam.

Such buyers usually know little about the process. But Champion said it’s just as challenging to teach banks and other agents about how to structure a successful deal for low-income customers. “It’s very tedious,’’ she said. “You’ve got to spend a lot of time educating the marketplace about how to create opportunities for these buyers.’’

Some sellers avoid low-income buyers who bring small down payments to the table, even if they have federally-backed mortgages that ensure the seller will get paid. “The seller really shouldn’t care at the end of the day,’’ Champion said. “They get all their money at the end of the day.’’

But often they do care, even if it costs them money. Champion had one client, a dark-skinned woman from Cuba who was able to put together a decent offer, but “because of the color of her skin, the other agent just felt she couldn’t afford the house.

“They basically sold the house for significantly less money to a non-black person,’’ Champion said. “That was the first time I encountered something like that, when just because of the color of their skin they could decide somebody couldn’t afford it.’’

It’s easier for Melony Swasey, an agent with Sotheby’s International Realty in Jamaica Plain. Her practice is tightly focused on this neighborhood, an ethnically-diverse area with a reputation for tolerance.

“If I went in certain neighborhoods in Boston, I’d probably face more of the discrimination you’re asking about,’’ said Swasey, 41, who studied urban planning at Cornell University. Instead, “I’m not having to work in neighborhoods where people might think twice about talking to me because I’m black or because I’m young.’’

Like Champion, Swasey often deals with minority homeowners who haven’t learned to regard homeowning as part of a long-term strategy to develop net worth. “I want to help them make a strategic decision,’’ she said. And sometimes that means giving up a chance to earn a commission. “I might have a conversation and say to them, ‘No, I don’t think you should sell this house,’ ’’ Swasey said.

But there are more challenging markets where black agents and brokers can expect a chillier reception. Getting into commercial real estate deals is an especially hard slog.

That’s partly because the process of buying, selling, or developing a commercial property takes far longer to complete. “It might take a year, two years, three years to sell a strip mall,’’ said George. To participate, a real estate agency needs patience and deep pockets. ’’If you don’t know what you’re doing, you will be eating tuna fish, because it takes so long to close commercial deals,’’ said Vieira.

In addition, minority real estate professionals often lack the social and political connections that would give them a shot at these deals, or even finding out about them.

“It’s very difficult on the commercial side to have a conversation with people,’’ said Shawn Burgess of Burgess Realty Group in Dorchester. “If you’re not making half a million dollars, they don’t want to talk to you.’’

George said he’s dealt with commercial developers who’d have been happy to work with him, but “they weren’t looking for a small firm like my firm. They wanted a minority agent or broker but with a larger firm.’’

Still, Burgess has done a few commercial deals for storefront properties. And Vieira said he’s joining the Boston chapter of the Urban Land Institute in a bid to step up his networking game.

“I’ve tried to kick the door open,’’ he said. “I’m still kicking the door open.’’

Despite the challenges, black real estate professionals are finding ways to prosper. They only wonder how much better they might be doing.

“We’ve been successful, but it’s by our own standards,’’ said Burgess. “I think it would be interesting to interview white counterparts to us, to see what their sales are, what their experience has been.’’

Still, Swasey has embraced the advice one of the owners of her agency gave her. “He said to me: ‘Melony, you are a black woman. What other business could you be in where the sky is the limit?’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.  Send comments and questions to Hiawatha.Bray@globe.com. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.