Discrimination against the (historically) privileged

Most cases of discrimination involve someone who belongs to a historically subordinated group being unfairly treated, because they belong to that group. Must all cases of discrimination fit this mould? Here are two, involving people who claim that they are being discriminated against because they belong to a historically dominant group. The first has been in the news recently: a group of workers at university in Wales are claiming sex discrimination on the grounds that they are paid less than their female counterparts. The second has not been in the news, since the case is more than a decade old. It concerns a man rejected by a US police force because he scored too high on an IQ test (the force has a policy of rejecting those who score too high, on the grounds that applicants who are too intelligent might get bored with police work and move on, which would entail a waste of the time and resources devoted to their training).There a range of possible responses to these kinds of cases. We might think that recourse to laws designed to address historical injustices by those who have never suffered from them represent some kind of abuse. On the other hand, we might note that the class of people who belong to groups that have historically been the victims of injustice and the class of people who are treated unfairly today do not overlap completely. Though it remains true that black people in the US and the UK are more likely to be discriminated against than white people, some black people lead privileged lives and a great many white people are treated unfairly. Though the laws were designed to redress historical injustices, there seems to be no good reason why anyone should not have recourse to them today.

In a brief discussion in the Observer, Barbara Ellen admits to feeling some unease concerning the use of sex discrimination laws by males, but suggests that she shouldn’t. Sex discrimination legislation “wasn’t brought in just to help women – it was to enforce equality for everybody, regardless of gender”, she writes. Surely, however, that’s just false: sex discrimination legislation was brought in to help to end discrimination against women. These laws formally recognize that some groups were the victims of injustice in the past and that members remain more likely to be discriminated against today. We should feel some unease when they are used by members of historically dominant groups.

One reason why discrimination against the members of dominant groups is (typically) less of a problem than discrimination against the historically dominant is that (again typically) the former have more options than the latter. So those who are discriminated against on the grounds of too much intelligence are more likely to be able to find other, and at least as good, jobs to pursue. If and when that becomes false – if and when (say) members of the white working class no longer have access to a broader range of valuable options than (say) black men – the laws lose their rationale as protectors of group interests and instead should be extended equally to all without residual unease. While racism and gender discrimination in their traditional forms persist, however, we should feel unease. Too free and wide use of these laws by members of dominant groups might serve to mask the ongoing reality of sexism and racism.

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2 Responses to Discrimination against the (historically) privileged

  • Chris Chew says:

    Hi Neil!

    You’ve brought up some good points in this article! I’d like it if you could give me your opinion on two points that I’d like to bring up regarding the topic of ‘historical discrimination’ – whether broader stereotypes/generalizations are valid, or we should find equality on the individual level; and whether compensation for ‘historical wrongs’ is part of the story.

    Regarding the first point, you’ve noted that:

    though it remains true that black people in the US and the UK are more likely to be discriminated against than white people, some black people lead privileged lives and a great many white people are treated unfairly

    Is there a danger, then, in generalising a population? For example, saying that on the whole, or on average, a person of race XX is more likely to be in a lower socioeconomic bracket, be discriminated against, and have fewer opportunities than a person of race YY, hence all persons of race XX are entitled to exactly the same compensation/anti-discrimination measures applied to them, regardless of where in the range of privilege they fall? It would seem to be more equitable and fair to instead deal with the issue on a case-by-case basis – assessing the proportionate disadvantage of each person blinded to race and applying the appropriate compensation. While this may seem unintuitive where the perception of the two categories is quite distinct (i.e. where there seems to be little within-group variation, and much between-group variation), I would argue that this should still apply. Hence there seems to be a case for discrimination laws to apply to all groups equally.

    My basis for this is the country of Malaysia, where my parents migrated from (though the disclaimer is that the political assessment that follows is neither particularly informed, nor is guaranteed to be particularly accurate). In Malaysia, there is an ethnic majority that is, on the whole, poorer and more disadvantaged than another ethnic minority. As such, the political party that has held power since Independence, who are also made up of members of the ethnic majority, have maintained a systematic policy that has advantaged this same ethnic majority in all walks of life, whether it be quotas/requirements for entry into higher education, minimum levels of ethnic majority shareholders/workers in businesses, or even discounts on home/land purchases. The issue has been, then, that due to high levels of corruption, a small group of ethnic majority persons have managed to become quite incredibly rich, and that the benefits of this ‘anti-discrimination’ policy have served to mainly benefit this small group, and not the ethnic group as a whole. As such, the argument has been made that the racial condition of the systematic policy should be abolished, and disadvantaged persons no matter from which race should be able to access the scheme.

    The main argument that I envision being brought against the case-by-case policy I have presented above is that there are serious difficulties with the condition that it be blinded to race since there are significant subconscious associations and biases associated with race, gender and other categories that are arguably difficult to avoid, and even more difficult to change. Invariably these almost always take the shape of being consistent with the ‘discriminations’ that are in question e.g. positive associations with the dominant race, and negative associations with the discriminated rate. Given the difficulty of quantifying the subconscious biases, and the great difficulty of overcoming them, it could be argued that there is a case for erring on the side of caution (e.g. the historically discriminated category) if there is a suspicion that these biases are coming into play.

    As for why there is a case for erring on the side of the historically discriminated category (vs. the historically dominant category) I would argue that a large part of this is due to a sense of guilt or shame over historical discrimination. The advent of anti-discrimination laws itself implies that the historical discrimination has been 1) identified and 2) deemed to be wrong and in need of correction. As such, to begin with, there is the presumption that any discrimination against the historically discriminated category, whether intentional or unintentional (due to persisting subconscious biases) is inherently wrong. There is even the case that erring on the side of caution, or what one might construe as overcompensation, is not even unwanted and perhaps even desirable, in that it is perceived as just compensation to that entire historically discriminated category for historical wrongs.

  • Dave Frame says:

    I’ve never been able to make my mind up about this stuff. On one hand it seems obvious in really egregious cases that some sort of particular effort should be extended to help groups that are disadvantaged. But on the other much of the politics of affirmative action looks like regular old special interest politics. I find a 2×2 matrix helpful: on one axis is the advantaged group and the disadvantaged group; on the other are the fortunate members of the groups, and the less fortunate members of the groups. The four groups are AF, DF, AL, DL to denote Advantage/Disadvantage and Fortunate and Less fortunate. It’s a slightly sweeping generalisation, but it seems to me that discriminatory policies are favoured by AF (whose consciences are salved by the presence of people from D) and DF (who directly benefit). AL lose from the policy since DF now take positions that were previously open to them (that’s the point of the policy…) and DL could be seen to win if having D people represented does matter, or lose if the policy means that deeper structural issues behind the disadvantage remain unaddressed. I think whether a policy is a good idea or not probably depends on the relative positions of the two groups who swap places: DF and AL. If talented members of D cannot get a fair go because of unearned advantages accruing to ordinary members of the advantaged group then some positive discrimination seems to make sense. But if the elites from D have unearned advantages over ordinary members of A, then it’s not obvious that discriminatory policies built on consideration of membership of D or A alone is fair or justified.

    [Also, it’s not obvious to me that “historical advantage” is the quality in play, generically, in these debates. Asian-Americans, for instance, are not historically advantaged as a group. Yet they more than any other group seem to be adversely affected by affirmative action in higher education admission decisions (which is where much of the action is here). Nor is “historical advantage” a simple idea.]


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