Determining Discrimination

Last week I thought this would be an obscure little post that most people would ignore. It was prompted by the release of a new poll that the Pew Research Center did on the experience of American Muslims. I was struck by a set of questions about the nature of discrimination. The summary is below:

Pew Muslim Discrimination

On three of these measures, things are somewhat better than they were in 2011 yet all are worse than they were in 2007. But “better” is a relative term. It is still true that nearly one in five Muslim responded that they had been called an offensive name. Six percent had been physically threatened or attacked.

The survey is drawn from 1,000 US Muslims over the course of this spring. Notice that the timeframe is the last year, not “in your lifetime”. That means that 60 Muslims were attacked and 180 were called names. Pew includes a summary calculation that identifies anyone who experienced any one of the five conditions described. The total comes to nearly 1 in 2 Muslims, or 480 people out of 1,000.

I’m particularly struck by the “treated with suspicion” option. Unlike all of the others, that appears to be more in the mind of the respondent. There is no necessary behavioral marker. Just a feeling that people are treating you differently because of your status.

That idea echoed another one from a different Pew survey. In a more general analysis of perceptions of discrimination, they asked people which groups they thought faced a lot of discrimination in today’s society. They then broke those down by subgroup, which makes for some very interesting analysis.

Pew Group Discrimination

So who faces discrimination? It depends upon who you ask. Less than half of whites say that blacks face a lot of discrimination. PRRI data suggests some interesting class and party distinctions.

White evangelicals are least likely to see discrimination against blacks (just over a third) or gays and lesbians (just over half). But half of white evangelicals argue that there is a lot of discrimination against them! No other subgroup sees that discrimination as overwhelming.

When I saw this last week, I was simply interested in the contrast between the Muslim survey that mostly asked about concrete behaviors and less about general perceptions.

But the past 24 hours has seen the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ exploring prosecution of reverse discrimination cases in colleges and universities. And today the White House rolled out new immigration policies to privilege English-speakers (ostensibly to protect jobs).

This all brings me back to the idea of “being looked at suspiciously”. It’s not about actual, demonstrable discrimination. It’s about the possibility that someone would take advantage and favor another group over yours. I can’t imagine seeing white evangelicals called names on the street. It’s beyond imagining that white students find themselves put upon on college campuses.

Discrimination has become separated from its sociological tether. No longer is it about structures that impede certain groups by law (redlining, law enforcement, neighborhood schools). It’s about being singled out because you’re white or Christian or conservative.

And all it takes to feel discriminated against is a single outlier instance. Bill Maher says something outrageous. A young woman isn’t admitted to the University of Texas. A florist in Washington is found in violation of a state nondiscrimination ordinance.

There may not really be jobs taken by new immigrants but there might have been. You heard that one story on the news. And maybe not today but certainly tomorrow.

This pattern of isolated outrage has become a staple of modern media environment. Organizations are quick to claim offense and paint the story in the worst possible and most egregious way. Because their business model depends upon it.

This is true of political organizations. It is true of religious organizations. It is true of media organizations.

But that outrage isn’t discrimination. And it’s a huge mistake to base public policy on something as fleeting as feeling “you were looked out suspiciously”.



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