Thinking About Discrimination: 8 Basic Issues

In these times, let's consider our own position in systems of inequality.

Posted Jul 06, 2020

Sometimes history seems to be at a tipping point. Masses take to streets; statues come down. People combine hopefulness and fear. Possibility is in the air.

Several essays in this series have focused on recent calls for social justice and the events that have precipitated those calls. In particular, I have written about prejudice, the tendency of individuals to think about other people as representatives of specific social categories and to demean them for those reasons. 

Perhaps an even more important topic is discrimination, actions that carry out those understandings, and in consequence, diminish the life-prospects of the persons so identified. 

It is common to think of prejudice and discrimination as tightly related matters and, often times, they are. However, discrimination is an occurrence of its own sort, an established set of lifeways or pattern for human relations. That “system,” reinforced in complicated ways, effectively controls current populations as much they control it. All too often, they live and die on its terms.

For such reasons, consider below eight basic issues about discrimination.

1. Fundamentally, discrimination is about access to socially valued resources. What do human beings need to prosper? They need material supports to shelter and nourish themselves. They need opportunities for public expression and collaboration in joint ventures. They need worthy identities and feelings of well-being, both personal and collective. They need skills and understandings, to make real their visions. In other words, people need wealth, power, prestige, and knowledge.

Those four socially valued resources are the very things that are restricted in forms of discrimination. Discriminators seek to enhance their own control of these capacities by declaring them off-limits to others. The controllers believe that sharing, in any widespread or substantial way, somehow diminishes what they possess (or hope to possess). All the slights, slurs, curtailments, and aggressions we associate with discrimination are just attempts to reinforce this basic view of life.     

2. Much like prejudice, there are varying degrees — and targets — of discrimination. Although discrimination shares the common impulse described above, it is important to emphasize that it settles on different groups of people in somewhat different ways. That is to say, sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and ethnocentrism unveil themselves as differing restrictions for the persons co coded. Add to these differences in region, education, religion, and a dozen other matters. In other words, there are many ways of being exclusionary or provincial and many ideas to justify those treatments. Who of us can claim to be free of them all? 

Beyond that, recognize that there are degrees of discrimination. Assaulting someone on the street and slighting them at a party may share the theme of harmful intent, but they differ in their scope and implications. Pointedly, discrimination may be large or small, vicious or timid. Many of us welcome certain groups and forbid others. Rare is the person who is honest enough to say: “I do well resisting some forms of prejudice/discrimination and less well with others.”

3. Discrimination operates at different levels, which vary in their stability and outreach. Some discrimination is largely “personal” in its inspiration and expression. For example, consider someone who posts racist tweets or other derogatory material on the Internet. Differently, discrimination occurs in “relationships” between people, as in the case of one person (perhaps the husband in a marriage) dominating and restricting another. “Groups” can display discrimination through their policies and practices. So can “organizations,” which are more formal and abstract entities that transcend the lives of their members. At even broader levels, “communities” and even “societies” may feature discriminatory processes. This increasing scope equates to increasing difficulties for those who wish to escape or change that maltreatment. 

4. Different institutions express discrimination (somewhat) differently. Although discrimination always features restricted access to socially valued resources for designated categories of people, different social institutions regulate different resources and justify those arrangements on different terms. For instance, economic discrimination centers on access to jobs, property, and wealth more generally. Political discrimination concerns access to governmental resources and vehicles of public representation, especially voting and office holding. Social discrimination involves patterns of membership and leadership, as in families, organizations, and communities. Religious bodies pose another challenge, as people may find themselves blocked from opportunities for spiritual expression and belonging, and from positions of moral authority in those bodies. Educational discrimination centers on access to schools and colleges, and on the more general possession of resources for creating and using knowledge. There is also discrimination that concerns opportunities for play, leisure, and artistic expression. Profoundly, there are challenges with regard to justice and law, focusing most clearly on relationships with police, the courts, and the criminal justice system. Commonly, minorities find themselves blocked within several of these institutions at the same time. Inevitably, that blockage affects the person’s assessment of self and feelings of social capacity.

5. Some discrimination is overt, while other forms are covert or hidden. In past decades, restrictive policies were quite explicit. Commonly, people from designated categories found themselves prevented from voting, living in specified neighborhoods, owning property, attending schools with the majority or working beside them, joining certain clubs, serving as leaders of faith communities, and so forth. That public system of exclusions (sometimes, expressed in law, or “de jure”) largely has given way to what are in-fact, or “de facto,” blockages.

For example, in a post-industrial society, minority status often means having reduced access to jobs, property, and wealth. Because of that, it is very difficult to afford good housing, high quality education, medical care, protection for one’s family, and supports for personal appearance. Society’s official representatives may proclaim that high-level positions in business, government, and other institutions are indeed “open” to minorities. However, chronic disadvantages, often the result of generations of restriction, make it difficult to compete with the majority.  Of course, some minority people do make it through the filtering system and succeed conspicuously. Nevertheless, millions of others spend their lives in resource-poor environments.

6. Discrimination commonly takes the form of behavior, but it also entails “symbolic” degradation. We tend to think of discrimination as actions that restrict people’s opportunities to succeed. Sometimes, those policies and practices segregate the minority from other citizens. They also can mean more explicitly “dominative” behaviors, attempts to control and coerce through various kinds of intimidation. Minorities are told they can lose their jobs, homes, or even their lives if they don’t accommodate themselves to the current power structure.

However, there are other kinds of violence. People may live under a tyranny of ideas — jokes, cartoons, caricatures, slurs, mascots, and other forms of insult. Conversely, the majority may publicize its own political and social superiority with statues, flags, building and street names, and other forms of “remembrance.” History books may extoll the virtues of the dominant groups and minimize the contributions of the less advantaged. All this reinforces a public culture that justifies ongoing forms of inequality.  Indeed, such patterns may seem “normal."

7. There is passive as well as active discrimination. It is customary to think of discrimination in its active forms, as when one group tries to subordinate another by regulating its means of self-expression. When we deny people the opportunities offered to other citizens, or simply circulate jokes and slurs about them, we actively discriminate.

Be clear that discrimination can mean acts of omission as well as those of commission. We who stand silently while a restrictive policy remains in force or demeaning information circulates bear some responsibility for those occurrences. In effect, we choose sides in a public culture that, ideally, should have no sides. To the extent that we nod and smirk, we affirm our allegiance with the insult-makers. The same is true when we see injustice and do not intervene. We make choices to solidify our own advantages at the expense of those who have less.                

8. Discrimination can be both intentional and unintentional. Do we know when we are being aggressive or hurtful toward others? Do we care? Most of us would say we do know and care, though often we justify our questionable behavior by stressing that it is a response to insults or threats posed by others. However, it is also the case that we situate our attitudes and behaviors in systems of social expectation, which guide our understandings of interactions and thus our treatment of others. That is, we develop some sense of what people “like us” are like and, in contrast, what other categories of people are like. Emboldened by such ideas (and the belief that others share our views), we may commit acts that are offensive.

We may be overly familiar with a minority person or, oppositely, fearful and skittish. We may try to compliment them — perhaps stressing their intellectual ability or some particular aspect of their appearance — without considering why we are emphasizing this theme when we would probably not do so to someone from another category. We may invite them to social settings because we want them to be represented (tokenism). We may fail to invite them, because we do not want them to feel conspicuous or “uncomfortable.” We may ask them to “speak for” their social category, even though that request may mean a summary of the life experiences of millions of people.        

As most of us have learned, it is difficult to avoid making missteps and insults in any social situation. Still, what the above examples make plain is that our errors are often the result of our seeing others as somehow different, that the social categories we impose are “real.” I do not dispute that the application of those categories, artifices in themselves, have dramatically influenced the life-experiences, traditions, and social identities of people. However, those social and cultural differences are largely the result of that group’s exposure to distinctive treatment, to their being sequestered and regarded as “other.” Isolation also affects dominant groups, who cling to one another and reinforce their understandings.    

No one pretends that these are simple issues. Still, the challenge for all of us is to communicate respectfully about what unites and divides us and to construct a society that honors everyone’s self-worth and possibilities for public contribution.