Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination don’t look the way they used to. Today it’s more about giving a leg up to people who are similar to you than trying to hurt people who are different, according to a review published in the American Psychologist.
Instead of hostile acts like using racial slurs, keeping people out of certain jobs, or denying housing to certain races, the majority of of discrimination is caused by giving favorable treatment to someone who shares your characteristics, the researchers found. They analyzed 50 years of experiments and surveys on discrimination and found that “in-group favoritism” is a more significant source of discrimination than inflicting harm on people who aren’t like you. The characteristics that can make someone feel like part of your “ingroup” could be age, race, sex, religion or even occupation, neighborhood, and educational background.
What this looks like in practice, as an example offered by the authors, is being more likely to recommend a person for a job opening who shares your race or other characteristics. Or a manager finding that two employees’ reviews fall in between two performance categories and putting the one whose child is friends with his in the higher category over the other employee. “We can produce discrimination without having any intent to discriminate or any dislike for those who end up being disadvantaged by our behavior,” said Tony Greenwald of the University of Washington, who co-authored the review.
Overt acts of discrimination used to be more common, but they began to decline beginning in the 1960s, after the passage of civil rights laws. That doesn’t mean, though, that prejudice went away; people simply don’t act on it in the same ways.
It’s easy to see the way that discrimination has shifted but still exists. One study of hiring processes found, “Employers sought candidates who were not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves.”
Redlining, the practice of barring black families from certain neighborhoods, is no longer legal. But housing discrimination still exists, just in more subtle forms: realtors show white buyers more homes than black and Asian ones even if they have similar credit histories and housing interests. Black people are no longer barred from certain jobs, but equally qualified white applicants are twice as likely to get a call back or a job offer than black ones.
Young women in the workplace today face an “unconscious bias.” No legal barriers stand in women’s way when they reach for the male-heavy upper echelons of their organizations, yet they still make up less than 15 percent of executives at the biggest companies. Men are more likely to be given money from investors, who are overwhelmingly male, even if women give the exact same pitch.