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Why are people discriminated against?   What causes people to discriminate against others?   Is there any way to stop this form of prejudice?  Why do some think there is nothing wrong with this type of behavior?    Is any form or type of discrimination learned or are we all hot-wired to be this way from birth?

Regional or geographic discrimination is discrimination based on the region in which a person lives or was born. It differs from national discrimination in that it may not be based on national borders or the country the victim lives in, but is instead based on prejudices against a specific region of one or more countries. Examples include discrimination against mainland Chinese within China, or discrimination against Americans from the south in the United States. It is often accompanied by discrimination based on accent, dialect, or cultural differences.  Religious discrimination is valuing or treating a person or group differently because of what they do or do not believe or because of their feelings towards a given religion. For instance, the indigenous Christian population of the Balkans (known as “rayah” or “protected flock”) lived under the Ottoman Kanun–i–Rayah. The word is sometimes translated as ‘cattle’ rather than ‘flock’ or ‘subjects’ to emphasize the inferior status of the rayah.

Restrictions upon Jewish occupations were imposed by Christian authorities. Local rulers and church officials closed many professions to Jews, pushing them into marginal roles considered socially inferior, such as tax and rent collecting and moneylending, occupations only tolerated as a “necessary evil”.  The number of Jews permitted to reside in different places was limited; they were concentrated in ghettos and were not even allowed to own land.

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.   Whereas religious civil liberties, such as the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief, are essential for Freedom of Religion, 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 freedom.”

Though gender discrimination and sexism refers to beliefs and attitudes in relation to the gender of a person, such beliefs and attitudes are of a social nature and do not, normally, carry any legal consequences. Sex discrimination, on the other hand, may have legal consequences.

What constitutes sex discrimination varies between countries; the essence is that it is an adverse action taken by one person against another person that would not have occurred had the person been of another sex. Discrimination of that nature is considered a form of prejudice and in certain enumerated circumstances is illegal in many countries.   Sexual discrimination can arise in different contexts. For instance an employee may be discriminated against by being asked discriminatory questions during a job interview, or by an employer not hiring or promoting, unequally paying, or wrongfully terminating, an employee based on his or her gender.

In an educational setting, there could be claims that a student was excluded from an educational institution, program, opportunity, loan, student group, or scholarship because of his or her gender. In the housing setting there could be claims that a person was refused negotiations on seeking a house, contracting/leasing a house or getting a loan based on his or her gender. Another setting where there have been claims of gender discrimination is banking; for example if one is refused credit or is offered unequal loan terms based on one’s gender.  As with other forms of unlawful discrimination there are two types of sex discrimination – direct discrimination and indirect discrimination. Direct sex discrimination is fairly easy to spot – ‘Barmaid wanted’, but indirect sex discrimination, where an unnecessary requirement puts one sex at a disproportionate disadvantage compared to the opposite sex, is sometimes less easy to spot, although some are obvious – ‘Bar person wanted – must look good in a mini skirt’.

Another setting where there is usually gender discrimination is when one is refused to extend his or her credit, refused approval of credit/loan process, and if there is a burden of unequal loan terms based on one’s gender.

Socially, sexual differences have been used to justify different roles for men and women, in some cases giving rise to claims of primary and secondary roles.

While there are alleged non-physical differences between men and women, major reviews of the academic literature on gender difference find only a tiny minority of characteristics where there are consistent psychological differences between men and women, and these relate directly to experiences grounded in biological difference.   However, there are also some psychological differences in regard to how problems are dealt with and emotional perceptions and reactions that may relate to hormones and the successful characteristics of each gender during longstanding roles in past primitive lifestyles.

The United Nations had concluded that women often experience a “glass ceiling” and that there are no societies in which women enjoy the same opportunities as men.   The term “glass ceiling” is used to describe a perceived barrier to advancement in employment based on discrimination, especially sex discrimination.

In the United States in 1995, the Glass Ceiling Commission, a government-funded group, stated: “Over half of all Master’s degrees are now awarded to women, yet 95% of senior-level managers, of the top Fortune 1000 industrial and 500 service companies are men. Of them, 97% are white.” In its report, it recommended affirmative action, which is the consideration of an employee’s gender and race in hiring and promotion decisions, as a means to end this form of discrimination.  In 2008, women accounted for 51% of all workers in the high-paying management, professional, and related occupations. They outnumbered men in such occupations as public relations managers; financial managers; and human resource managers.

Transgender individuals, both male to female and female to male, often experience transphobic problems that often lead to dismissals, underachievement, difficulty in finding a job, social isolation, and, occasionally, violent attacks against them. Nevertheless, the problem of gender discrimination does not stop at transgender individuals or with women. Men are often the victim in certain areas of employment as men begin to seek work in office and childcare settings traditionally perceived as “women’s jobs”. One such situation seems to be evident in a recent case concerning alleged YMCA discrimination and a Federal Court Case in Texas. The case actually involves alleged discrimination against both men and blacks in childcare, even when they pass the same strict background tests and other standards of employment. It is currently being contended in federal court, as of fall 2009.

One’s sexual orientation is a “predilection for homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality”. Like most minority groups, homosexuals and bisexuals are not immune to prejudice and discrimination from the majority group. They may experience hatred from others because of their sexual preferences; a term for such hatred based upon one’s sexual orientation is often called homophobia. Many continue to hold negative feelings towards those with non-heterosexual orientations and will discriminate against people who have them or are thought to have them.

People of other uncommon sexual orientations also experience discrimination. One study found its sample of heterosexuals to be more prejudiced against asexuals and sapiosexuals (the latter term referring to people sexually attracted to intelligence) than to homosexuals or bisexuals.

A number of countries, especially those in the Western World, have passed measures to alleviate discrimination against sexual minorities, including laws against anti-gay hate crimes and workplace discrimination. Some have also legalized same-sex marriage or civil unions in order to grant same-sex couples the same protections and benefits as opposite-sex couples. In 2011, the United Nations passed its first resolution recognizing LGBT rights.

Social theories such as egalitarianism assert that social equality should prevail. In some societies, including most developed countries, each individual’s civil rights include the right to be free from government sponsored social discrimination.  Due to a belief in the capacity to perceive pain or suffering shared by all animals, “abolitionist” or “vegan” egalitarianism maintains that the interests of every individual (regardless its species), warrant equal consideration with the interests of humans, and that not doing so is specieist.

Discrimination, in labeling theory, takes form as mental categorization of minorities and the use of stereotype.  This theory describes difference as deviance from the norm, which results in internal devaluation and social stigma that may be seen as discrimination. It is started by describing a “natural” social order. It is distinguished between the fundamental principle of fascism and social democracy.  The Nazis in 1930s-era Germany and the pre-1990 Apartheid government of South Africa used racially discriminatory agendas for their political ends. This practice continues with some present day governments.

However, government officials and politicians need not care about losses as much as companies, which decrease their incentive not to discriminate. For example, around 1900 African-Americans started to compete for jobs that had previously been all-white. Officials, voted in by white majorities, changed the hiring rules for the federal civil service. Photographs of applicants were made obligatory in civil service job applications, and hiring officials were given discretion to choose between the three top scoring applicants. The number of blacks in federal employment was kept artificially low for decades.

In early 20th century South Africa mine owners preferred hiring black workers because they were cheaper. Then the whites successfully persuaded the government to enact laws that highly restricted the black’s rights to work.

When the “Jim Crow” racial segregation laws were enacted in the U.S., many companies disobeyed them for years, because the market automatically punishes companies that discriminate: they lose customers and get additional expenses. It took 15 years for the government to break down the resistance of the companies.

The profitability of the company that discriminates is decreased, and the loss is “directly proportional to how much the employer’s decision was based on prejudice, rather than on merit.” Indeed, choosing a worker with lower performance (in comparison to salary) causes losses proportional to the difference in performance. Similarly, the customers who discriminate against certain kinds of workers in favor of less effective ones have to pay more for their services, on average.  If a company discriminates, it typically loses profitability and market share to the companies that do not discriminate, unless the state limits free competition protecting the discriminators.

The above description of micro-economic theory results misses the ambivalent relations between discrimination and economic efficiency, as shown by the literature. First and in contradiction to the above text, Becker’s explanation, “discriminatory tastes,” was shown to be problematic because it implies discrimination is efficient.  In other words, the very aim of the markets is to cater efficiently for the different “tastes” of all individuals, including customers, employees, employers, and firm owners (and discrimination happens within and between all these groups). If discrimination were just another “taste” then the markets were not to punish for it. Second, microeconomic theory turns to unusual method – explicit treatment of production functions – when it analyzes discrimination. And third, the very existence of discrimination in employment (defined as wages which differ from marginal product of the discriminated employees) at the long run, contradicts perfect competition and efficiency (which imply equality of wages and the said marginal product). Hence, the very existence of discrimination at the long run, contradicts the claim that the markets function well and punish the discriminators.

Kathy Kiefer

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