Discrimination (17): Human Rights and Intersectionality

Intersectionality is an interesting concept because it’s related to the interdependence of human rights. (Sorry for the alliteration). Kimberlé Crenshaw was the first to propose the term for the purpose of describing interacting forms of discrimination. Some examples. A black woman may have relatively worse life outcomes compared to a white woman who is similar to her in most respects, even though both suffer gender discrimination. The combination of racism and sexism makes it much harder for the black woman to find a job. She will have to overcome anti-female prejudice as well as racism on the job market. An immigrant woman may have a hard time escaping sexual violence because her irregular status makes it difficult for her to go to the police. And so on.

Victims of discrimination and oppression are sometimes very different from each other, depending on the various types of discrimination that combine in order to make their lives difficult. A white upper-class able-bodied female citizen may be discriminated in some ways, but her fate is unlike the one suffered by a poor black illegal immigrant mother. Intersectionality makes for more intense discrimination.

And there’s an additional claim: people’s outcomes are made worse because of the ways in which different forms of discrimination combine (the sum being larger than the addition of the parts). Two or three types of discrimination can be mutually reinforcing. They do not act independently of one another but instead shape one another. Racial stereotypes for example need to be broken down by gender in order to see how different gender representations combine with racial stereotypes in order form an overall discriminatory ideology.

Take for example the Jezebel character. A Jezebel is a loose, sex-craved woman who is often depicted as stereotypically black, i.e. with big lips and funny hair. It’s racist prejudice about sexual morals of black people combined with a gender stereotype. (The idea that it’s men who want more sex is a relatively recent one; and “the sex-mad negro” representation is still around). It’s also no surprise that Reagan’s “welfare queen” was black. Being both poor and a “lazy and untrustworthy black person”, the welfare queen encapsulated a toxic mix used to criticize poor blacks until this day.

The concept of intersectionality “grew up” in the context of feminism. Feminists at some point in the 60s or 70s realized that although the focus on gender as a cause of discrimination is necessary, gender isn’t the sole factor determining the fate of women. A white middle class woman suffers a different form of oppression compared to a poor black women or a disabled woman. Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) became the effort to understand how gender, race and class combine to limit women’s life prospects. Since then, the word has transcended the realm of feminist theory and is now applied to all people who suffer a combination of different forms of oppression. 

All this has practical implications. For example, if you want to take a stand on more female CEO’s or quota for women in parliament you may inadvertently leave existing class structures intact, even if you include race in your quota demands (black women can have class privilege too). On the other hand, if you focus only on racism you may be blind to the specific suffering of black women. Intersectionality is therefore kind of a call for solidarity across victimized groups. 

Time to get back to human rights, I hear you say. The notion of interdependency in rights theory can be likened to intersectionality. If both your right to a decent standard of living and your political rights are violated, then these violations affect each other. For a poor person it’s much harder to reclaim her political rights because her struggle to survive takes precedence over other concerns. However, without her political rights, it’s much more difficult to escape poverty. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. I think it’s fair to say that this interdependence of rights is similar to the notion of intersectionality.

More posts in this series are here.

Discrimination (16): When Is It OK to Discriminate?

Discrimination is generally blameworthy and therefore often illegal as well. However, there are situations in which it’s acceptable to discriminate and unacceptable to legislate against discrimination. I’m not referring to rules that apply unequally to different people in order to produce a more equal outcome, such as rules regarding affirmative action (which are sometimes claimed to be a form of positive discrimination); nor am I referring to rules regarding different height requirements for male and female candidate police officers. These are two examples of rules that discriminate in order to make outcomes more equal, and they can therefore, paradoxically, be seen as anti-discriminatory. Conversely, rules that apply equally to all can have a “disparate impact“: e.g. one uniform and “neutral” height requirement for police officers would mean that fewer women will be allowed in the police force and would therefore have a discriminatory impact on women. Even if such rules are not intended to discriminate against women, they obviously do. (I’ll come back to intent in discrimination at the end of this post).

So, I’m thinking about rules like those, or rules that not only have unequal outcomes but also apply unequally (take the rules against gay marriage for instance). Can some such rules, which clearly discriminate some groups of people (given a certain understanding of discrimination), ever be justified?

I think they can. Discrimination can be unobjectionable if the benefits outweigh the harm done by discrimination. “Benefits” meaning not the benefits from the discriminator’s point of view, since those always, by definition, outweigh the harms for others – that’s the point of discrimination. We have to look at the benefits generally speaking, from a neutral point of view. For example, the safety of airline passengers and hence their rights to life and physical security outweigh the discrimination imposed on people who are not allowed to be pilots because of their bad eyesight. Another example: the importance of a good education for our children outweighs the discrimination imposed on people who want to be teachers but don’t have the qualifications. Discrimination of people with a physical disability or intellectual deficiencies is acceptable and even beneficial in these cases, not because those who can become pilots and teachers benefit from the exclusion of rivals, but because society as a whole benefits, and because this benefit outweighs the harm done to those excluded.

The downside of the consequentialist balancing inherent in these examples is that it is seldom clear what the exact harms and benefits of discrimination are. After all, every historical instance of discrimination was once defended on the basis of its beneficial consequences: equal voting rights for women was supposed to lead to irrational politics; legalization of homosexuality would lead to immorality; miscegenation would lead to the downfall of the white race etc. However, these examples don’t prove that there can’t be any forms of discrimination that can have some real and overriding benefits, and in fact we daily assume that they have: we give good teachers a job as a teacher, we give talented people higher wages etc. because we believe that society as a whole benefits from this.

Maybe we shouldn’t talk about discrimination in cases of acceptable and beneficial discrimination. I argued here that we should probably limit the concept to those cases in which the equal rights of those who are discriminated are violated and, more specifically, are violated for no other reason than their membership of a socially salient group. The would-be pilots and teachers in the examples above don’t have an equal right to be pilots or teachers or to any other specific job. There is no such right. There is a general right to work, but that right isn’t violated since people with bad eyesight or without the qualifications to become good teachers have ample opportunities to find a job elsewhere (under normal economic conditions).

Also the second condition for discrimination is absent in these examples: the people in question are certainly not part of socially salient groups (which is another way of saying that people with bad eyesight or without the qualifications to become good teachers are not regularly put at a disadvantage in society). Hence they are not discriminated when they are excluded from certain jobs on the basis of qualifications.

If, however, the would-be pilots and teachers were black – and therefore part of a socially salient group – and if they were excluded for no other reason than their skin color, and if this exclusion would violate their right to work (or any other right), then there would be discrimination. Their exclusion would violate their right to work when they regularly face this kind of exclusion, not when that sort of things happens only exceptionally and when they therefore have ample opportunities elsewhere.

This last point about alternative opportunities is crucial. Single instances of discrimination usually don’t violate people’s rights and therefore aren’t really discrimination according to the definition given here. Discrimination requires violations of people’s rights and violations based on people’s membership in socially salient groups. And violations of rights imply the absence of alternative opportunities  (I once gave the example of one lonely restaurant owner refusing to serve blacks, or the isolated landlord refusing to rent a house to Italian immigrants).

In this older post I argued that forcing some people to stop discriminating would violate their rights, such as their right to free association, to property, to religion etc. and that it can only be acceptable to force them to stop if the discrimination they inflict is so widespread and historically deep that it limits the rights and options of the targets of discrimination.

Nevertheless, this rule still leaves us with a few hard cases. The rights of discriminators may still receive priority even when the discrimination does severely limit the options and rights of target groups. Suppose there’s a general disapproval to marry “outside of one’s race” among the majority white population in a society. Most of us would not want legislation against this kind of discrimination because that would drastically limit the right to marry of the discriminators. Discrimination here severely impacts the choices and opportunities of non-whites, and yet seems acceptable. The whites in question may be immoral and repugnant, but this doesn’t render their rights null and void and doesn’t justify legislation prohibiting an exclusive preference for white husbands and wives. The reason, I think, is that it’s very difficult to do something about the actions of the whites. You can force people to hire blacks, serve them in your restaurant, admit them in your school etc. But you can’t force people to marry someone. So, the system I set up here to separate cases of discrimination from other cases isn’t perfect. It won’t solve some hard cases, but maybe those can never be solved.

A final word about intent. There’s no mention of intent in the definition of discrimination given here. That means that rules with a disparate impact can be cases of wrongful discrimination even if there is no intent to discriminate. Take again the case of height requirements for police officers: a single height requirement for both genders is not necessarily discriminatory, but when it is part of a wider social pattern of gender inequality, then it may violate women’s equal rights because the total set of gender biased rules makes it difficult for women to have ample employment opportunities elsewhere. Women are then a socially salient group. Intent is irrelevant here. Even if the height requirement is motivated by efficiency reasons, it contributes to discrimination and rights violations. The goal of anti-discrimination is equal protection of rights, whatever the causes of rights violations.

Now, imagine the height requirement isn’t part of a wider pattern of gender inequality. In that case, women have ample opportunities elsewhere and their equal right to work is therefore not violated. Hence there is no discrimination.

Discrimination (15): Is Assortative Mating a Form of Discrimination?

Assortative mating is the selective mating between individuals whose choice of marriage partners is determined by similarity of social environment. (It’s a form of homogamy, the mating of like with like). One example is the preference to mate with individuals of the same race. Take this case:

Is it racist when a white woman declares, when asked out on a date, that she will only date white men? … She, a white women, took her boss, an African American, to court on sexual harassment charges. During the hearings, he commented that she had said to him that she did not date African Americans, and he maintained that that was racist. (source)

Let’s not focus on the African American man’s apparent attempt to deflect harassment charges by playing the race card. That’s not what I want to discuss here – and, anyway, the story cited above doesn’t provide sufficient information to allow us to judge the intentions of either party. Let’s instead take the general case of a person of one race refusing to date and marry a person of another race for no other reason than race.

Is this kind of assortative mating racist? I think it is. It shows a general dislike of people of another race. It’s prejudiced and bigoted and it implies writing off whole groups of people on the sole basis of their skin color. However, is it also discrimination? I guess not. If it were discrimination, we would be allowed to use the power of the law to fight it, and no one wants the law to mess with people’s mating choices as long as both partners are consenting adults. (Polygamy may come to mind as a counterexample, but my view on the legality of polygamy is much more liberal than the conventional view; I’ll explain in another post).

No one has a right to his or her mate of choice, and no one can use the force of law to compel the consent of this mate of choice. Hence, there’s a lot of racism and bigotry that we can’t fight with the force of law and thus have to accept. We can try to change people’s minds over time, educate future generations and so on, but if this doesn’t convince everyone to regard all individuals as potential mates then there’s no more we can do.

I argued here that we can only speak about discrimination when there is a violation of rights. The account above is yet another example.

More posts in this series are here.

Discrimination (14): Lookism

Lookism means discrimination, stereotyping or prejudice based on how people look, and preferential treatment of the physically attractive, the tall, the non-fat and those with the right skin color. I feel the need to revisit the topic, since a previous post on heightism – one form of lookism – was a complete failure. While trying to make the point that heightism, historically speaking, caused much less harm than other forms of prejudice – such as racial or gender prejudice – I managed to offend a lot of short people, and was scolded for it in comments. In my defense, I wanted to talk about preferential treatment based on a few inches of height difference; I understand perfectly well that there is a stigma attached to very short people. However, it seems that this point didn’t come across and I take full responsibility for that.

So, in order to state things clearly from the start and avoid a similar miscommunication: I agree that lookism is a real and serious form of discrimination imposing real harm on those who suffer from it. How serious compared to other types of discrimination? Let’s just ignore that question for the moment and focus on the topic at hand. “Serious enough” will do.

In general, it helps to understand lookism as a form of beauty bias. Many instances of preferential treatment or discrimination based on the way people look are actually about the perceived beauty or lack of beauty of the targets. That’s true even for heightism, since height is often associated with beauty and lack of it with ugliness. Beautiful people – or, better, people generally considered as beautiful – get a lot of advantages in life. They earn more, even in professions where looks wouldn’t seem to matter and even if they aren’t more intelligent or productive. Finding a job, getting a promotion and getting a loan are some of the things that are easier with good looks. And beautiful people are also better at finding mates and getting elected in democratic elections. I could go on.

Some of these advantages result not from direct discrimination by others who prefer beautiful people. Beauty may result in higher self-confidence, and then it’s self-confidence rather than beauty that convinces others to give beautiful people a job or a promotion. But the fact that beauty comes with self-confidence is probably the result of society’s bias towards beauty. There’s also some evidence that taller people have higher average cognitive abilities, which would mean that a wage premium for height is justifiable and not a form of discrimination. Still, an abilities gap doesn’t rule out lookism, since taller children may be treated preferentially by their parents and educators, giving them a head start. This head start then explains their supposedly higher abilities later in life. Even if rewarded according to their abilities, we’re still talking about discrimination.

While some of the undeserved advantages that go to the beautiful are difficult to correct (we wouldn’t want to regulate mating), others are not, given the right form of anti-discrimination legislation. Some form of correction via legislation is necessary especially when preferential treatment results in violations of equal human rights for some. However, legislation can have some serious drawbacks (see here), so we’ll have to be careful.

More posts in this series are here.

Discrimination (13): Is Disability Just a Case of Bad Luck or Is It Discrimination?

When people think about disability they usually don’t see it as a moral issue. A disabled person supposedly suffers from bad luck, and the problems she encounters while living her life with a disability don’t result from the decisions or actions of her fellow citizens. They are instead caused by ill health or by biological and anatomical inadequacies, things for which no one is to blame. Brute misfortune, that is all.

Of course, a disability can be caused by someone else’s misconduct, for example industrial pollution or paralysis following an accident caused by someone else. However, let’s focus on blameless disability, the kind that is not anyone’s fault.

There’s a problem with the view that this kind of disability is no more than misfortune. The threshold level of normal human functioning that determines the difference between disability and non-disability isn’t just determined by biological facts, but also by social practices and the artificial social environment. For example, imagine a society that has developed technologically up to a point where people don’t have to use their hands anymore. No more computer keyboards, steering wheels in cars, remote controls etc. Let’s assume that everything that needs to be done can be done by programming and brain power (not a far-fetched assumption). A person who loses her hands in an accident will not be considered “disabled” in such a society. This accident will not push her below the threshold level of normal human functioning. In fact, most likely it won’t even be viewed as an accident, but rather a small nuisance, depending on the level of pain involved. Much like we in our existing societies react to a bee sting. It’s usually not disabling.

Now, when we take the same example of a person losing her hands, but situate her in a country such as the U.S. today, then we would say that she is disabled and that she has fallen below the threshold level of normal human functioning. But the reason we say this isn’t simply a biological or anatomical one, otherwise she would also have to be disabled in the imaginary society described a moment ago. The reason we say that she is disabled depends on the social circumstances and the social system in which she finds herself after losing her hands. Because U.S. society has been designed in such a way that people need to use their hands a lot of the time, we say that someone without hands is disabled. The decision to count someone as disabled has less to do with biology and anatomy than with the social practices and the artificial social environment we live in. The level of functioning a person can achieve depends less on her biological or anatomical abilities than on the artificial social environment in which she finds herself.

Hence, disability isn’t just something that happens to people; it’s something that we as a society have decided should happen to people. There’s nothing about our society that necessarily relegates people without hands to the category of the disabled. On the contrary, we have willingly designed our society in such a way that people without hands are disabled. We could just as well design our society in another way. Technology permitting, of course, but technology is also – up to a point – a choice: we just simply decided to develop technologies and the wider social environment in such a way that they don’t really take into account the needs of people without hands.

The fact that we designed our society in the way we did seems to indicate that we don’t care a lot about the disabled, at least not enough to do something for them. And such an absence of care can be viewed as a type of discrimination. After all, until some decades ago, men didn’t much care about the education of women, even though society was quite able to give women the same kind of education as men. The relative lack of education of women wasn’t a necessary fact of life but a choice. And that choice was a symptom of discrimination.

Of course, the analogy is shaky because gender discrimination was and is often a conscious choice, whereas the disabled are only rarely consciously disadvantaged. However, as I’ve stated before, the fact that discrimination is unconscious doesn’t automatically excuse it.

More on luck. More posts in this series.

Discrimination (12): Is Price Discrimination Immoral?

Price discrimination – or price differentiation – is a commercial policy. A seller may want to sell identical goods at different prices to different classes of customers in order to increase market shares, reach otherwise unreachable groups of customers or profit from customers’ willingness to pay.

The question is whether we should treat this type of discrimination like we treat other types. In other words, should we label price discrimination as something that is morally reprehensible, and should we also make it illegal (which are two different things – lying is often reprehensible but only rarely illegal)?

The answer is: it depends. Some forms of price discrimination are morally neutral or even praiseworthy. Offering students or poor people discounts for museum tickets or public transport has some moral benefits. Other forms, however, are clearly reprehensible:

[O]ne field experiment examined discrimination against disabled people in the context of car repairs, finding that disabled customers received higher quotes than the non-disabled customers. To get at the nature of this discrimination, the authors first conducted a survey, which revealed that “mechanics believe the disabled approach 1.85 body shops for price quotes while the non-disabled approach 2.85.”  In a second field experiment, the authors instructed participants to say the phrase, “I’m getting a few price quotes.”  This significantly changed outcomes — disabled participants received much lower offers: “Importantly, the lower offers received by disabled testers after signaling a willingness to search are not statistically different from those received by the abled,” write the authors. (source)

This is an example of so-called third degree price discrimination, which is in fact a form of statistical discrimination because the price is differentiated on the basis of an attribute of a customer segment (in this case disability), and this attribute is taken as a proxy of the customers’ ability or willingness to pay (in this case, the disabled are willing – or believed to be willing – to pay more because they can’t or won’t be troubled with shopping around).

Clearly, not all third degree price discrimination or statistical discrimination is wrong (student or senior discounts are cases of third degree price discrimination), but in this example it is wrong. Offering the disabled higher prices simply because they are disabled and hence less likely to shop around, is clearly immoral, even if it’s not based on animus against the disabled. It aggravates the disadvantage that nature has imposed on the disabled, and it’s a typical case of exploitation.

Exploitation occurs when one party in a voluntary exchange between two (or more) partners gets an unfair price for the goods or services exchanged, and when this party enters the exchange from a disadvantaged position. A price is unfair when it is below what it would have been in a fair auction. It is beyond doubt that a fair auction would have allowed the disabled, who enter the exchange from a disadvantaged position, to pay less.

More posts in this series are here.

Discrimination (11): Types of Discrimination

After this post about the reasons why discrimination is wrong, I thought it might be useful to add something about the differences between some types of discrimination and in the process link to some older and forgotten posts.

The most common type or at least the most commonly referenced type of discrimination is explicit discrimination: “whites only” signs, apartheid, miscegenation laws etc. When this type starts to become more and more unacceptable, hidden discrimination often takes over. Someone who wants to discriminate no longer does so explicitly – because that’s illegal or socially frowned upon – but instead adopts a policy or a law that doesn’t reference the target group, that remains facially neutral and that, when applied, accomplishes the intended discrimination. The most famous examples are the Jim Crow era literacy tests for voters. These tests effectively excluded blacks from the franchise although blacks weren’t explicitly targeted. Decades of educational discrimination made sure that very few blacks passed the tests.

Both these forms of discrimination are intentional, but some cases of discrimination are unintentional. People may not intentionally aim to impose disadvantages on other groups, but the structures of society, as they have been influenced by decades of previous – intentional – discrimination, make it very hard to avoid the imposition of systematic harm on some groups. The enduring effects of slavery in the U.S. are an example. Some would argue that this isn’t discrimination at all, since discrimination is typically defined on the basis of intentions and not purely in terms of consequences or outcomes.

Then there’s unconscious discrimination (see also here). People often have unconscious motives for their actions. And finally there’s statistical discrimination (see also here), which is discrimination that doesn’t arise from prejudice or bias, but occurs when people use aggregate group characteristics, such as group averages, to evaluate individual personal characteristics (for example, employers avoiding to hire African Americans because it’s statistically more likely for an African Americans to be an ex-convict).

More posts in this series are here.