What Is Discrimination?
According to its most simple definition, racial discrimination refers to unequal
treatment of persons or groups on the basis of their race or ethnicity. In
defining racial discrimination, many scholars and legal advocates distinguish
between differential treatment and disparate impact, creating a two-part
definition: Differential treatment occurs when individuals are treated unequally
because of their race.
Disparate impact occurs when individuals are treated equally according to a
given set of rules and procedures but when the latter are constructed in ways
that favor members of one group over another . The second component of this
definition broadens its scope to include decisions and processes that may not
themselves have any explicit racial content but that have the consequence of
producing or reinforcing racial disadvantage.
Beyond more conventional forms of individual discrimination, institutional
processes such as these are important to consider in assessing how valued
opportunities are structured by race.
A key feature of any definition of discrimination is its focus on behavior.
Discrimination is distinct from racial prejudice (attitudes), racial stereotypes
(beliefs), and racism (ideologies) that may also be associated with racial
disadvantage . Discrimination may be motivated by prejudice, stereotypes, or
racism, but the definition of discrimination does not presume any unique
Racial and Ethnic Discrimination
Racial discrimination results in unequal treatment between individuals on the
basis of real and perceived racial differences. It may manifest on every level
of social life, from minor disregard or intense hostility in interpersonal
interactions to much larger instantiations in public institutions (also called
structural or institutional discrimination), such as the segregatory practices
prominent in the Jim Crow era of the Unites States (1870s-1960s).
Sex, Gender and Gender Identity Discrimination
Though what constitutes sex discrimination varies between countries, it
essentially refers to an adverse action taken against a person based on their
perceived sex, gender, and/or gender identity. Historically, sexual differences
have been used to justify different social roles for men and women. Unfair
discrimination usually follows the gender stereotypes held by a society.
Religious discrimination is prejudicial treatment of a person or group
differently based on their spiritual or religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
In a 1979 consultation on the issue, the United States commission on civil
rights defined religious discrimination in relation to the civil rights
guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which
deals with due process and equal fairness of all citizens under the law.
According to the commission, religious discrimination occurs when someone is
denied ” the equal protection of the laws, equality of status under the law,
equal treatment in the administration of justice, and equality of opportunity
and access to employment, education, housing, public services and facilities,
and public accommodation because of their exercise of their right to religious
Reverse discrimination is a term referring to discrimination against members of
a dominant or majority group, including the city or state, or in favor of
members of a minority or historically disadvantaged group. Groups may be defined
in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, or other factors.
This discrimination may seek to redress social inequalities where minority
groups have been denied access to the same privileges of the majority group. In
such cases it is intended to remove discrimination that minority groups may
Reverse discrimination may also be used to highlight the discrimination inherent
in affirmative action programs.
How Can We Measure Discrimination?
More than a century of social science interest in the question of discrimination
has resulted in numerous techniques to isolate and identify its presence and to
document its effects . Although no method is without its limitations, together
these techniques provide a range of perspectives that can help to inform our
understanding of whether, how, and to what degree discrimination matters in the
lives of contemporary American racial minorities.
What Is Non Discrimination?
The principle of non-discrimination seeks “to guarantee that human rights are
exercised without discrimination of any kind based on race, colour, sex,
language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin,
property, birth or other status such as disability, age, marital and family
status, sexual orientation and gender identity, health status, place of
residence, economic and social situation”.
What Is Protective Discrimination
Protective discrimination is the policy of granting special privileges to the
downtrodden and the underprivileged sections of society, most commonly women.
These are affirmative action programs, most visible in both the United States
and India, where there has been a history of racial and caste discrimination.
The practice is most prominent in India, where it has been enshrined in the
constitution and institutionalized.
The need to discriminate positively in favour of the socially underprivileged
was felt for the first time during the nationalist movement. It was Mahatma
Gandhi, himself a devout Hindu and a staunch believer in the caste system, who
was the first leader to realise the importance of the subject and to invoke the
conscience of the upper castes to this age-old social malady of relegating whole
communities to the degrading position of “untouchables”.
The Constitution of independent India which largely followed the pattern of the
Government of India Act, 1935, made provisions for positive discrimination in
favour of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs & STs) which
constituted about 23% of the divided India’s population. Besides reserving
parliamentary seats for them they were given advantages in terms of admission to
schools and colleges, jobs in the public sector, various pecuniary benefits for
their overall development, and so on.
The constitution indeed guaranteed the fundamental right of equality of all
citizens before the law but it also categorically laid down that nothing in the
constitution “shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the
advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or
for the Schedules Castes and the Scheduled Tribes”.
Studies of Law and Legal Records
Since the civil rights era, legal definitions and accounts of discrimination
have been central to both popular and scholarly understandings of
discrimination. Accordingly, an additional window into the dynamics of
discrimination involves the use of legal records from formal discrimination
Whether derived from claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC),
the courts, or state-level Fair Employment/Fair Housing Bureaus, official
records documenting claims of discrimination can provide unique insight into the
patterns of discrimination and anti-discrimination enforcement in particular
contexts and over time.
Roscigno, for example, analyzed thousands of “serious claims” filed with the
Civil Rights Commission of Ohio related to both employment and housing
discrimination. These claims document a range of discriminatory behaviors, from
harassment, to exclusion, to more subtle forms of racial bias.
Although studies relying on formal discrimination claims necessarily overlook
those incidents that go unnoticed or unreported, these records provide a rare
opportunity to witness detailed descriptions of discrimination events across a
wide range of social domains not typically observed in conventional research
- Article 17: Abolition of “untouchability” and making its practice in any
form a punishable offence.
- Article 46: Promotion of educational and economic interests.
- Article 16 and 335: Preferential treatment in matters of employment in
- 330 and 332: Reservation of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies.
Later, the job-related positive discrimination was extended to
government-supported autonomous bodies. A 1974 Government order laid down that
all such bodies which employed more than 20 people, and where 50% of the
recurring expenditure was met out of grants-in-aid from the Central Government,
and which received annual grants-in-aid of at least Rs.200,000 should invariably
provide for reservation of SCs and STs in posts and services. The general rule
which exempted the scientific and technical posts from the purview of positive
discrimination was applicable to the autonomous bodies too.
Is Discrimination Still A Problem?
Simple as it may be, one basic question that preoccupies the contemporary
literature on discrimination centers around its continuing relevance. Whereas 50
years ago acts of discrimination were overt and widespread, today it is harder
to assess the degree to which everyday experiences and opportunities may be
shaped by ongoing forms of discrimination. Indeed, the majority of white
Americans believe that a black person today has the same chance at getting a job
as an equally qualified white person, and only a third believe that
discrimination is an important explanation for why blacks do worse than whites
in income, housing, and jobs.
Academic literature has likewise questioned the relevance of discrimination for
modern-day outcomes, with the rising importance of skill, structural changes in
the economy, and other nonracial factors accounting for increasing amounts of
variance in individual outcomes Indeed, discrimination is not the only nor even
the most important factor shaping contemporary opportunities.
Nevertheless, it is important to understand when and how discrimination does
play a role in the allocation of resources and opportunities. In the following
discussion, we examine the evidence of discrimination in four domains:
employment, housing, credit markets, and consumer markets. Although not an
exhaustive review of the literature, this discussion aims to identify the major
findings and debates within each of these areas of research.
A Spectre of Two India’s
In the current context the most critical question is whether two Indias are
being created by two diametrically opposite socio-political forces-the demand
for modernisation on the one hand bolstered by the opening up Affirmative Action
in India 163 of the economy and its integration into the techno-intensive global
economy -- and on the other, the demand for social justice undermining the core
of that theory. One calls for the withdrawal of the state and the other assigns
to the state the role of the greatest dispenser of equity.
Against this background it would be increasingly difficult for the state to
implement its policy of reservations especially where the OBCs are concerned. On
the one hand the number of government jobs is shrinkig while on the other
pressure for more jobs is mounting.
There is yet another related issue. Greater liberalisation of the economy means
more modernization of trade and industry. The traditional vocations of the
backward classes such as cleaning, haircutting, fishing and tanning are under
threat of being controlled by the upper castes particularly in the urban areas.
With the growing use of technology in these trades they are no longer looked
down upon as occupations. Therefore, the backwards cannot depend any more upon
the state; they would have to respond to the market as well. This brings into
question the broader recommendation of the Mandal Commission.
Discrimination is not the only cause of racial disparities in the United States.
Indeed, persistent inequality between racial and ethnic groups is the product of
complex and multifaceted influences.
Nevertheless, the weight of existing evidence suggests that discrimination does
continue to affect the allocation of contemporary opportunities; and, further,
given the often covert, indirect, and cumulative nature of these effects, our
current estimates may in fact understate the degree to which discrimination
contributes to the poor social and economic outcomes of minority groups.
Although great progress has been made since the early 1960s, the problem of
racial discrimination remains an important factor in shaping contemporary
patterns of social and economic inequality.
Sources of data
- Marc Galanter, Competing Equalities : Law and the Backward Classes in
India, Delhi, OUP, 1984
- Paul R Brass, The Politics of India since Independence, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 1990
- Professor Parmaji, Caste Reservations and Performance : Research
Findings, Warangal, Mamata, 1985
- V A Pai Panandiker, The Politics of Backwardness: Reservation Policy in
India, New Delhi, Konark, 1997
- Black’s Law Dictionary, (7th edn., West Group Publishers 2002)
- Oxford English Dictionary, (10th edn., Oxford University Press, New