Racial Discrimination Research Paper

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Racial discrimination exists in straightforward actions but also in complex systems of social relations that produce racial inequities. Discrimination is not, as popularly thought, simply the accumulation of individual acts of unfairness between members of different groups. It consists as well of an elaborate web of institutional arrangements that produces group inequalities, a web that becomes racial discrimination when the groups perceive each other as separate ‘races.’ Studied throughout the social sciences, these inequalities can involve political power, economic resources, and cultural access.

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1. Conceptual Complexities

Viewing racial discrimination as an institutional web casts a wide net but leaves room for considerable ambiguity. Disagreement about what constitutes discrimination stems from two sources—one ideological and political, the other empirical. First, because discrimination violates law and professed values in many countries, a judgment that unequal outcomes reflect discrimination is a call for unpopular change and costly remedies. Resistance to such change and costs activates debate about the extent of discrimination. Second, deficiencies in analysis and evidence limit the ability of scientists to trace precisely the dynamic system of effects triggered by discrimination.

Consider first the political issue. The broadest definitions of discrimination assume that racial minorities have no inherent characteristics that warrant inferior social outcomes. Thus, all inequality becomes a legacy of discrimination and a social injustice to be remedied. Favored by the political left, this view appears to many as too sweeping.

By contrast, political conservatives favor a narrow definition that limits the concept’s scope by including only actions intended to restrict a group’s chances. Most social science specialists resist this reformulation for several reasons. An intentionality criterion returns the concept to the realm of psychology and deflects attention from restraining social structure. And the invisibility of intentions creates formidable obstacles for substantiating discrimination. Finally, the effects of discrimination are the same whether or not the causal institutional mechanisms were intended to produce group inequalities.

This rejection of the intentionality criterion leads to an important distinction between direct and indirect discrimination (Pettigrew 1985). Direct discrimination occurs at points where inequality is generated, often intentionally. When decisions are based explicitly on race, discrimination is direct. Indirect discrimination occurs when the inequitable results of direct discrimination serve as a basis for later decisions. Hence, discrimination is indirect when an ostensibly nonracial criterion becomes a proxy for race in determining social outcomes. Indirect dis-crimination perpetuates or magnifies the original injury.

Wage discrimination illustrates the distinction. Direct racial discrimination exists when employers pay equally qualified members of two races different rates for the same work. Indirect discrimination exists when the employers pay the two groups unequally because prior discrimination in employment, education, or housing created apparent differences in qualifications or channeled the groups into better-and worse-paying jobs. This direct indirect distinction resembles the distinction often made by legal systems between disparate treatment and disparate impact. While intentional direct discrimination may have triggered the causal chain, the original injury is perpetuated and magnified by largely unwitting accomplices.

2. Empirical Ambiguities

This conceptual complexity carries over to impede the empirical study of discrimination. Apparently rigorous quantitative analyses often camouflage the crucial issues, as an examination of wage decomposition research reveals.

Assessments of racial discrimination produced by decomposing gross racial differences in social outcomes are common in sociology (Farley 1984) and economics (Gill 1989). This approach first assigns one segment of the gross racial differential to ‘qualifications’ and other factors deemed legitimate determinants of social rewards. The residual segment not demonstrably linked to ‘legitimate’ determinants of the outcomes often is presented as the estimate of discrimination. However, without better information than usually available and closer agreement on what constitutes discrimination, no unique estimate of discrimination is possible. The choice of control variables to index ‘legitimate’ determinants of social outcomes shapes the answers. Any appearance of scientific certitude is an illusion. Not surprisingly, discrimination estimates from this approach vary enormously.

Empirical research on group discrimination must mirror the phenomenon in its variety and complexity. The regression decomposition approach is useful but limited. Regression analyses could provide more pertinent information if based on more homogeneous job groups (Conway and Roberts 1994) and on structural equation models that test reciprocal causation. Most important, if the aim is to guide policy, a framework far more complex than the dichotomous discrimination-or-not approach is required. Research that traces the actual processes of institutional discrimination is essential (Braddock and McPartland 1987). Also needed is attention to victims’ perceptions of discrimination and to the changes generated by antidiscrimination efforts.

3. Racial Discrimination In The United States And Western Europe

Both direct and indirect forms of racial discrimination can be found throughout the world. Most of the available research, however, focuses on the long-festering racial problems of the United States. In such long-term situations, injuries of indirect discrimination often are more extensive than those of direct discrimination. This conclusion does not imply that direct discrimination no longer exists. Employment complaint records reveal the continued operation of direct forms of discrimination. US women and minorities have filed 1.5 million job discrimination complaints since 1965. Not all such complaints reflect genuine discrimination, but analysts believe that false complaints are minimal in comparison with the amount of actual discrimination that goes unreported and thus undetected. Many major corporations have been found guilty of direct racial discrimination in the 1990s. And employment audits using paired, equally qualified applicants reveal widespread direct discrimination (Reskin 1998). Employers have admitted to interviewers that their stereotypes of minorities, particularly of innercity black men, lead them to avoid minority hiring (Neckerman and Kirschenman 1991).

Along with direct employment discrimination, indirect discrimination is pervasive. Many employers rely on word-of-mouth recruiting of new employees, especially for unskilled jobs. Thus the current workforce, often disproportionately white, reproduces existing racial inequalities in employment by bringing in white friends and relatives as the next generation of workers. This is just one aspect of ‘business as usual’ that represents indirect discrimination. Although word-of-mouth recruiting appears to be color blind, it serves to perpetuate racial inequalities (Reskin 1998).

Recent analyses of indirect discrimination in the USA have focused on wealth. Racial inequalities in assets dwarf disparities in other social outcomes. Although the magnitude of inequality in home equity is grave, racial inequality in liquid assets is even more marked. The average white family has been estimated to hold liquid assets 14 times greater than those of the average black family (Conley 1999).

The racial gap in assets results from a history of direct and indirect discrimination. Prohibitions against black self-employment and land ownership in the American South were an early part of the picture. More recently, occupations to which blacks were confined, agricultural and domestic work, were excluded from Social Security provisions. Direct and indirect discrimination by federal housing agencies, banks, realtors, and white homeowners have limited black Americans’ opportunity to accrue wealth through home ownership (Conley 1999, Massey and Denton 1993, Oliver and Shapiro 1995).

The cumulation of disadvantage is particularly acute when the focus is assets. Since wealth reproduces itself exponentially, the racial gap in assets in the USA has continued to grow. And assets have important implications for other social outcomes such as education and labor market success. Where parents do not have the means to live in higher status neighborhoods, children do not have access to good public schools. And for most students, attendance at the best colleges and universities depends on parents’ ability to provide tens of thousands of dollars per year to cover tuition and expenses. Labor market outcomes reflect educational disadvantage, but assets have other indirect effects as well. Access to networks of information crucial to job-seekers, proximity to lucrative employment, automobile transportation to work—all these are a function of assets, and black Americans are at a pronounced disadvantage (Conley 1999). Innovative strategies for intervention must be devised to break into the spiraling disadvantage produced by black Americans’ deficits in wealth.

Analogous dynamics afflict the minorities of other nations. And a research literature on the subject is now emerging in Western Europe. Discrimination against the region’s new immigrant racial minorities is pervasive (Castles 1984, MacEwen 1995, Pettigrew 1998). And both direct and indirect discrimination are involved, though the indirect forms are largely unrecognized in Europe.

Investigators have repeatedly uncovered direct discrimination in the UK (Amin et al. 1988). Controlled tests reveal the full litany of discriminatory forms involving employment, public accommodations, housing, the courts, insurance, and banks. Employment discrimination poses the most serious problem. In every European Union nation, minorities have markedly higher unemployment rates than natives.

As in the US, there are many reasons for minority unemployment disparities. The ‘last-in, first-out’ principle selectively affects the younger minority workers. Typically less skilled, they are more affected by job upgrading. Minorities also are more likely to be in older, declining industries. These patterns are not accidental. Planners put minorities into these industries for cheaper labor precisely because of their decline. Yet these multiple factors offer insufficient explanations for the greater unemployment of minorities. Veenman and Roelandt (1990) found that education, age, sex, region, and employment level explained only a small portion of the differential unemployment rates in The Netherlands.

Indirect discrimination arises from the inability to obtain citizenship. It restricts immigrants’ ability to get suitable housing, employment, and schooling. In short, the lives of Europe’s noncitizens are severely circumscribed. Castles (1984) contends that the guest-worker system that brought many of the immigrants to Europe was itself a state-controlled system of institutional discrimination. It established the newcomers as a stigmatized out-group suitable for low-status jobs but not citizenship. And racial prejudices add to this stigma. Widespread indirect discrimination, then, was inevitable for these victims of direct discrimination.

4. Remedies For Racial Discrimination

The most elaborate array of remedial measures is found in North America. Both Canada and the United States have instituted a battery of laws against many types of racial and other forms of discrimination. Court rulings in the two nations also have proven decisive. The effects of these legal actions are magnified by class action suits—the ability of single litigants to sue for remedy for their entire ‘class’ or group. Further remedies have involved various forms of ‘affirmative action’ in which special efforts are made to close group disparities caused by discrimination. All these approaches have led to narrowing racial disparities in social outcomes. But sharp racial inequities remain in both countries, and majority resistance has hardened against the most successful remedies.

Antidiscrimination remedies have been largely ineffective in Europe. Germany guarantees basic rights only to citizens. So, the disadvantages of noncitizenship include the inability to combat discrimination. There is extensive German legislation to combat anti-Semitism and Nazi ideology, but these laws have proved ineffective in protecting noncitizens. The German constitution explicitly forbids discrimination on the basis of origin, race, language, beliefs, or religion—but not citizenship. Indeed, the Federal Constitutional Court has ruled that differential treatment based on citizenship is constitutional if there is a reasonable basis for it and if it is not wholly arbitrary. And restaurants can refuse service to Turks and others on the grounds that their entry might lead to intergroup disturbances (Layton-Henry and Wilpert 1994).

Few means of combatting discrimination are available in France either. Commentators often view discrimination as ‘natural’ and universally triggered when a ‘threshold of tolerance’ (seuil de tolerance) is surpassed (MacMaster 1991). Without supporting evidence, this rationalization supports quotas and dispersal policies that restrict minority access to suitable housing.

The Netherlands, United Kingdom, and Sweden have enacted antidiscrimination legislation that specifically applies to the new immigrant minorities. And the Dutch have instituted modest affirmative action programs for women and minorities. Yet this legislation has been largely ineffective for two inter-related reasons. First, European legal systems do not allow class action suits—a forceful North American weapon to combat discrimination. Second, European efforts rely heavily on individual complaints rather than systemic remedies. The UK’s 1976 Act gave the Commission for Racial Equality power to cast a broad net, but individual complaints remain the chief tool (MacEwen 1995).

Individual efforts are unlikely to alter discrimination, because they are nonstrategic. Minorities bring few charges against the worst discriminatory firms, because they avoid applying to them. Complaints about job promotion are common, but they are made against employers who hire minorities. Effective anti- discrimination laws must provide broad powers to an enforcement agency to initiate strategic, institution- wide actions that uproot the structural foundations of discrimination.

5. Two Summary Propositions

The long-lasting character of racial discrimination means that the effects typically outlive the initiators of discriminatory practices. Discrimination is fundamentally normative; its structural web operates in large part independent of the dominant group’s present attitudes or awareness. Hence, models based primarily on individual prejudice or ‘rationality,’ whether psychological or economic, will uniformly understate and oversimplify the phenomenon.

Discrimination feeds upon itself; it is typically cumulative and self-perpetuating. An array of research on African Americans has shown that neighborhood racial segregation leads to educational disadvantages, then ‘to occupational disadvantage, and thus to income deficits, (Pettigrew 1985). To be effective, structural remedies must reverse this ‘vicious circle’ of discrimination.

Seen in this perspective, discrimination is far more intricate and entrenched than commonly thought. The complexity of discrimination presents major challenges to social scientific attempts to trace its impact. This complexity also precludes any simple correspondence between perpetration and responsibility for remedy. Broad social programs will be necessary if the full legacy of direct and indirect racial discrimination is finally to be erased.


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