Discrimination, in its non-political and non-legal sense, simply means the recognition of differences. In the political and legal sense, it means unjustifiable differences in treatment between groups of people, most often the unjustifiable denial of the equal enjoyment of human rights.
Groups of people are discriminated because they have certain group-specific attributes that set them apart from the rest of society and that warrant, in the eyes of the people who are discriminating, less favorable treatment. One can make the following distinctions:
- Discrimination can come in different degrees, affecting large or small numbers of people to a large or small extent: from government policy to an unspoken mentality of a small part of the population, and everything in between (such as states not acting to counter discrimination, very active and outspoken discrimination in some parts of the community, entrenched cultural practices such as the caste system etc.).
- It can be exercised in different ways. People may be discriminated on the grounds of their race, gender etc. They can be discriminated in relatively harmless ways (denial of a promotion because of a likely pregnancy for example) or very brutal ways (slavery, denying of equal education etc.). They can also be discriminated in many different fields of life: education, employment, justice, health care etc.
Some people have the misfortune of finding themselves in a state which has an overt and active policy of discrimination, and in different discriminated groups at the same time (black lesbians in Apartheid South-Africa for example). As a result, they may also be discriminated in different fields of life at the same time (employment, family law, education etc.).
There are many types of discrimination, and the concept of discrimination is often linked to others such as racism, agism, sexism, xenophobia, intolerance, religious fundamentalism, genocide, ethnic cleansing etc. Whereas all these phenomena undoubtedly have a dose of discrimination, they are not the necessary result of discrimination. Discrimination can be much more limited.
One can distinguish between types of discrimination according to the groups that are discriminated, and the ways in which these groups are discriminated.
- racial discrimination
- gender discrimination
- discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation
- discrimination based on one’s language, culture or national origin
- discrimination based on one’s religion or one’s status within a religion
- discrimination based on one’s political convictions
- age discrimination
- health discrimination (e.g. discrimination of HIV patients, disabled persons or obese persons)
- etc. (when it comes to cruelty, man’s imagination has no limits I’m afraid)
- economic discrimination (e.g. persistent differences in poverty levels between groups)
- employment discrimination (e.g. discrimination in career opportunities, pay, “Berufsverbot” etc.)
- housing discrimination
- family law discrimination (e.g. the inability of homosexuals to marry or to adopt)
- education discrimination, different levels or quality of education for different groups
- discrimination of the access to public service or elected positions
- judicial discrimination, discrimination in the justice system
- health discrimination, different levels or quality of healthcare for different groups
- cultural practices such as honor killings, female genital mutilation,…
- legal discrimination such as Jim Crow or segregation
Causes of discrimination:
- racism, sexism etc.
- a history of discrimination, creating a burden on future generations
- recession or economic scarcity
- cultural practices (e.g. the caste system)
- religious doctrine
- legislation (e.g. the Jim Crow laws or other types of legally enforced discrimination)
Article 2 of the Universal Declaration prohibits discrimination:
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
Although poverty has many causes, discrimination is undoubtedly one of them. Large differences in wealth between groups (for example racial groups) may indicate the existence of discrimination.
Statistics on the differences between races in incarceration or execution rates may indicate the existence of discrimination in the justice system, although these differences may have other causes besides discrimination, e.g. differences in poverty rates (see above), differences in levels of education etc. Of course, the latter differences may be caused by discrimination so that discrimination is indirectly the cause of the differences in the application of justice. Here again are some data on the situation in the US, showing that blacks, although they make up only 12% of the population, account for more than 1 in 3 of the prison population and of the executions. 5% of black men are in jail, compared to less than 1% of white men.
Blacks are also about twice as likely as whites to be a victim of a crime.