The Dynamics of Discrimination

June 2006

Devah Pager, Princeton University

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In 1927, a New York clothing manufacturer advertised for help with a notice typical of that time period: “White workers $24: Colored Workers $20.” At the time, ads like these were common, with the explicit understanding that whites were to be paid more than people of color. Today, of course, such overt forms of discrimination have all but vanished. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, rendering previously common forms of unequal treatment illegal. With the shifting legal context, the social context of discrimination has transformed dramatically as well. Today the vast majority of Americans endorses the principle of racial equality and repudiates acts of racial discrimination. And yet, despite these progressive developments, a range of social science evidence indicates that significant discrimination persists in contemporary society. Whether conscious or unconscious, exposed or covert, among individuals or institutions, systematic differences in the treatment of whites and minorities contribute to the economic marginalization of minority groups. This chapter examines the ways in which discrimination continues to operate by asking four basic questions: (1) What is discrimination? (2) How can we identify discrimination when it takes place? (3) What causes discrimination? (4) How can we reduce the incidence of discrimination? In answering these questions, we will examine the range of evidence available from social science research, as well as considering the factors that are not adequately captured by existing measures of discrimination.

Discrimination, Poverty Trends and Measurement, Race and Ethnicity