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Chapter 9: Race and Ethnicity

9.4 Discrimination

Often racial and ethnic prejudice lead to discrimination against the subordinate racial and ethnic groups in a given society. in this context refers to the arbitrary denial of rights, privileges, and opportunities to members of these groups. The use of the word arbitrary emphasizes that these groups are being treated unequally not because of their lack of merit but because of their race and ethnicity.

Usually prejudice and discrimination go hand-in-hand, but Robert Merton (1949) stressed that this is not always the case. Sometimes we can be prejudiced and not discriminate, and sometimes we might not be prejudiced and still discriminate. Table 9.1 “The Relationship Between Prejudice and Discrimination” illustrates his perspective. The top-left cell and bottom-right cells consist of people who behave in ways we would normally expect. The top-left one consists of “active bigots,” in Merton’s terminology, people who are both prejudiced and discriminatory. An example of such a person is the white owner of an apartment building who dislikes people of color and refuses to rent to them. The bottom-right cell consists of “all-weather liberals,” as Merton called them, people who are neither prejudiced nor discriminatory. An example would be someone who holds no stereotypes about the various racial and ethnic groups and treats everyone the same regardless of her/his background.

Table 9.1 The Relationship Between Prejudice and Discrimination


Source: Adapted from Merton, R. K. (1949). Discrimination and the American creed. In R. M. MacIver (Ed.), Discrimination and national welfare (pp. 99–126). New York, NY: Institute for Religious Studies.

The remaining two cells of the table are the more unexpected ones. On the bottom left, we see people who are prejudiced but who nonetheless do not discriminate; Merton called them “timid bigots.” An example would be white restaurant owners who do not like people of color but still serve them anyway because they want their business or are afraid of being sued if they do not serve them. At the top right, we see “fair-weather liberals”: people who are not prejudiced but who still discriminate. An example would be white store owners in the South during the segregation era who thought it was wrong to treat blacks worse than whites but who still refused to sell to them because they were afraid of losing white customers.

Individual Discrimination

The discussion so far has centered on , or discrimination that individuals practice in their daily lives, usually because they are prejudiced but sometimes even if they are not prejudiced. Examples of individual discrimination abound today. Joe Feagin (1991), a former president of the American Sociological Association, documented such discrimination when he interviewed middle-class African Americans about their experiences. Many of the people he interviewed said they had been refused service, or at least received poor service, in stores or restaurants. Others said they had been harassed by the police, and even put in fear of their lives, just for being black. Feagin concluded that these examples are not just isolated incidents but rather reflect the larger racism that characterizes U.S. society.

Similarly, much individual discrimination occurs in the workplace, as sociologist Denise Segura (1992) documented through interviews with Mexican American women working in white-collar jobs at a public university in California. More than 40% of the women said they had encountered workplace discrimination based on their ethnicity and/or gender and they attributed their treatment to stereotypes held by their employers and coworkers.

One particularly insidious form of individual discrimination is hate or bias crime. In 2020, there were 8,052 single-bias incidents involving 11,126 victims (FBI, 2021). Of these hate crimes, the majority were motivated by race/ethnicity/ancestry bias. Figure 9.3 “Hate Crimes in the U.S., Single-Bias Incidents, 2020” demonstrates the different groups targeted in such crimes.  Of the hate crimes targeting people due to race-ethnicity, almost 55% of these crimes specifically targeted African Americans (FBI, 2020).

Figure 9.3 Hate Crimes in the U.S., Single-Bias Incidents, 2020

Pie chart showing Hate Crimes in the U.S., Single-Bias Incidents, 2020, with 62.3% being race-ethnicity based, 20.2% associated with sexual orientation, 13.4% related to religion, about 3% gender identity related and 1% related to disability.

Source: Data from Federal Bureau of Investigations. 2020. Retrieved from https://crime-data-explorer.fr.cloud.gov/pages/explorer/crime/hate-crime

Institutional Discrimination

Institutional discrimination is important to address, as it is consequential in U.S. society today. is discrimination that pervades the practices of whole institutions, such as housing, medical care, law enforcement, employment, and education. This type of discrimination affects large numbers of individuals simply because of their race or ethnicity. Sometimes institutional discrimination is also based on sexual orientation, gender, disability and/or other characteristics.

In the area of race and ethnicity, institutional discrimination often stems from prejudice and is intentional, as was certainly true in the South during the period of segregation. However, just as individuals can discriminate without being prejudiced, so can institutions when they engage in practices that seem to be racially neutral but in fact have a discriminatory effect. Consider height requirements for police. Before the 1970s, police forces around the United States commonly had height requirements, say 5 feet 10 inches. As women began to want to join police forces in the 1970s, many found they were too short. The same was true for people from some racial/ethnic backgrounds, such as Latinos, whose stature is smaller on the average than that of non-Latino whites.

This gender and ethnic difference is not, in and of itself, discriminatory as the law defines the term. The law allows for bona fide (good faith) physical qualifications for a job. As an example, we would all agree that someone has to be able to see to be a school bus driver; sight therefore is a bona fide requirement for this line of work. Thus, even though people who are blind cannot become school bus drivers, the law does not consider such a physical requirement to be discriminatory.

But were the height restrictions for police work in the early 1970s bona fide requirements? Women and members of certain ethnic groups challenged these restrictions in court and won their cases, as it was decided that there was no logical basis for the height restrictions then in effect. The courts concluded that a person did not have to be 5 feet 10 inches to be an effective police officer. In response to these court challenges, police forces lowered their height requirements, opening the door for many more women, Latino men, and others to join police forces (Appier, 1998).

Institutional discrimination affects the life chances of people of color in many aspects of life today. To illustrate this, we turn to some examples of institutional discrimination that have been the subject of government investigation and scholarly research.


Think Like a Sociologist

From a sociological perspective, which would be considered more detrimental for society, individual or institutional discrimination? Explain your answer.


Health Care Discrimination

People of color have higher rates of disease and illness than whites. One question that arises is why their health is worse? Do they have poorer diets, less healthy lifestyles, and the like, or do they receive worse medical care because of their higher poverty rates or because of institutional discrimination in the health-care industry?

Several studies use hospital records to investigate whether people of color receive optimal medical care, including coronary bypass surgery, angioplasty, and catheterization. After taking the patients’ medical symptoms and needs into account, these studies find that African Americans are much less likely than whites to receive the procedures just listed, irrespective of their social class status (Smedley, Stith, & Nelson, 2003). In a novel way of studying race and cardiac care, one study performed an experiment in which several hundred doctors viewed videos of African American and white patients, all of whom, unknown to the doctors, were actors. In the videos, each “patient” complained of identical chest pain and other symptoms. The doctors were then asked to indicate whether they thought the patient needed cardiac catheterization. The African American patients were less likely than the white patients to be recommended for this procedure (Schulman et al., 1999).

Why does discrimination like this occur? It is possible, of course, that some doctors are racists and decide that the lives of African Americans are less valuable, but it is far more likely that they have that somehow affect their medical judgments. Regardless of the reason, the result is the same: African Americans are less likely to receive potentially life-saving cardiac procedures simply because of their race. Institutional discrimination in health care, then, is literally a matter of life and death.

By now, it should come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has had unequal effects on communities across the United States. In fact, people living in Black, Latino and Indigenous communities have experienced COVID infections, related health issues and deaths, and economic hardships at disproportionately higher rates (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021; Getachew et al., 2020). This is not to say that COVID-19 is somehow racist or that racial/ethnic groups are biologically different enough to be more or less susceptible to the virus. Rather, the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the social inequities that have been the hallmark of US society for centuries. Many people of color have limited access to health insurance and good healthcare. Many also live in neighborhoods that have been largely denuded of resources such as, living-wage jobs, banks, grocery stores, pharmacies, doctor and dentist offices, reliable public transportation, clean public parks or other venues for family outings and regular exercise, etc. In addition, people of color fill many of the “low end” service jobs that could not go online and whose importance for everyday living was largely undervalued until the pandemic forced us to designate them as “frontline service” jobs (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). In effect, once invisible grocery store cashiers and cart jockeys became “essential workers,” or those workers who were deemed so important that they were expected to endanger their lives by continuing to interact with other people while our society locked down. When you put these conditions next to the fact that Black and Latino families were affected at almost twice the rate as white families during the great recession’s housing bust,it starts to become clear why the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Blacks and Latinos in such a severe fashion (Garriga, C., et. al., 2017).

Test yourself

Housing Discrimination

When loan officers review mortgage applications, they consider many factors, including the person’s income, employment, and credit history. The law forbids them to consider race and ethnicity. Yet many studies find that African Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to have their mortgage applications declined (Blank, Venkatachalam, McNeil, & Green, 2005). Because members of these groups tend to be poorer than whites and to have less desirable employment and credit histories, the higher rate of mortgage rejections may be appropriate, albeit unfortunate.

To control for this possibility, researchers take these factors into account and in effect compare whites, African Americans, and Latinos with similar incomes, employment, and credit histories. Some studies are purely statistical, and some involve white, African American, and Latino individuals who independently visit the same mortgage-lending institutions and report similar employment and credit histories. Both types of studies find that African Americans and Latinos are still more likely than whites with similar qualifications to have their mortgage applications rejected (Turner et al., 2002) or to be offered mortgages carrying higher interest rates or less desirable terms.

image of residential redlining map for Philadelphia

This map from the Home Owners Loan Corporation of Philadelphia is an example of a redlining map, where areas colored red were considered “hazardous” where home loan applications would be denied. Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain

There is also evidence of banks rejecting mortgage applications for people who wish to live in certain urban, supposedly high-risk neighborhoods, and of insurance companies denying homeowner’s insurance or else charging higher rates for homes in these same neighborhoods. Practices like these that limit access to loans and insurance in certain neighborhoods are called , and they also violate the law (Ezeala-Harrison, et. al., 2008). Because the people affected by redlining tend to be people of color, redlining, too, is an example of institutional discrimination.


Watch and Reflect

Some sociologists argue that residential segregation drives many of the other inequalities that racial-ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, experience in the U.S. today. Watch the following video and reflect on the questions below: Housing Segregation and Redlining in America: A Short History.

What are redlining and restrictive covenants and what have been the consequences of these practices for African Americans?

What policies and changes resulted from the Fair Housing Act of 1968?

How has discrimination in housing affected wealth, educational opportunity, health, crime and policing?

Want to explore redlining in your state or community, check out this interactive map: Redlining Map


The denial of mortgages and homeowner’s insurance contributes to an ongoing pattern of residential segregation, which was once enforced by law but now is reinforced by a pattern of illegal institutional discrimination. Residential segregation involving African Americans in northern cities intensified during the early 20th century, when tens of thousands of African Americans began migrating from the South to the North to look for jobs and escape the harsh realities of living in the segregated South (Massey & Denton, 1993). Their arrival alarmed Northern whites and mob violence against African Americans and bombings of their houses escalated. Fear of white violence made African Americans afraid to move into white neighborhoods, and “improvement associations” in white neighborhoods sprung up in an effort to keep African Americans from moving in. These associations and real estate agencies worked together to implement among property owners that stipulated they would not sell or rent their properties to African Americans. These covenants were common after 1910 and were not banned by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1948. Still, residential segregation worsened over the next few decades, as whites used various kinds of harassment, including violence, to keep African Americans out of their neighborhoods, and real estate agencies simply refused to sell property in white neighborhoods to them.


Think Like a Sociologist

In a society that values equal opportunity for all, scholars have discovered a troubling trend: African American children from middle-class families are much more likely than white children from middle-class families to move down the socioeconomic ladder by the time they become adults. In fact, almost half of all African American children born during the 1950s and 1960s to middle-class parents ended up with lower incomes than their parents by adulthood. Because these children had parents who had evidently succeeded despite all the obstacles facing them in a society filled with racial inequality, we have to assume they were raised with the values, skills, and aspirations necessary to stay in the middle class and even to rise beyond it. What, then, explains why some end up doing worse than their parents?

According to a study written by sociologist Patrick Sharkey for the Pew Charitable Trusts, one important answer lies in the neighborhoods in which these children are raised. Because of continuing racial segregation and associated discrimination, many middle-class African American families find themselves having to live in poor urban neighborhoods. About half of African American children born between 1955 and 1970 to middle-class parents grew up in poor neighborhoods, but hardly any middle-class white children grew up in such neighborhoods. In Sharkey’s statistical analysis, neighborhood poverty was a much more important factor than variables such as parents’ education and marital status in explaining the huge racial difference in the eventual socioeconomic status of middle-class children. An additional finding of the study underscored the importance of neighborhood poverty for adult socioeconomic status: African American children raised in poor neighborhoods in which the poverty rate declined significantly ended up with higher incomes as adults than those raised in neighborhoods where the poverty rate did not change.

Why do poor neighborhoods have this effect? It is difficult to pinpoint the exact causes, but several probable reasons come to mind. In these neighborhoods, middle-class African American children often receive inadequate schooling at run-down schools, and they come under the influence of youths who care much less about schooling and who get into various kinds of trouble. The various problems associated with living in poor neighborhoods also likely cause a good deal of stress, which can cause health problems and impair learning ability.

Even if the exact reasons remain unclear, this study showed that poor neighborhoods make a huge difference. As a Pew official summarized the study, “We’ve known that neighborhood matters… but this does it in a new and powerful way. Neighborhoods become a significant drag not just on the poor, but on those who would otherwise be stable.” Sociologist Sharkey added, “What surprises me is how dramatic the racial differences are in terms of the environments in which children are raised. There’s this perception that after the civil rights period, families have been more able to seek out any neighborhood they choose, and that… the racial gap in neighborhoods would whittle away over time, and that hasn’t happened.”

Data from the 2010 Census confirmed that the racial gap in neighborhoods persists. A study by sociologist John R. Logan for the Russell Sage Foundation found that African American and Latinx families with incomes above $75,000 are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods than non-Latinx white families with incomes below $40,000. More generally, Logan concluded, “The average affluent Black or Hispanic household lives in a poorer neighborhood than the average lower-income white household.”

One implication of this neighborhood research is clear: to help reduce African American poverty, it is important to do everything possible to improve the quality and economy of the poor neighborhoods in which many African American children, middle-class or poor, grow up (Social Problems: Continuity and Change, 2010; Logan, 2011; MacGillis, 2009; Sharkey, 2009).

Can you make a connection between some of the examples of institutional discrimination (i.e., redlining and racial covenants) and the poverty-related struggles faced by people living in poor neighborhoods described above?

A sociologist by the name of Frank Furstenberg, Jr. once wrote: “Neighborhoods are not accidents. They are products of systematic sorting processes,” (Furstenberg, Jr. et. al., 1999). Use a few concepts from this section (and the passage above) to help explain what Furstenberg, Jr. meant.


Employment Discrimination

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial discrimination in employment, including hiring, wages, and firing. Table 9.2 “Median Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Workers, Third Quarter, 2021” presents weekly earnings data by race and ethnicity and shows that Latinx and African Americans have much lower earnings than white and Asian Americans. Several factors explain this disparity, including the various structural obstacles related to poverty. Despite Title VII, however, an additional reason is that Latinx and African Americans continue to face discrimination in hiring and promotion (Hirsh & Cha, 2008).

Table 9.2 Median Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Workers, Third Quarter, 2021

Median Weekly Earnings

% of White Earnings

African American



Asian American



Latino American



White American



Source: Data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers Third Quarter 2021. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/wkyeng.pdf

A now-classic field experiment documented such discrimination. Sociologist Devah Pager (2007) had young white and African American men apply independently in person for entry-level jobs. They dressed the same and reported similar levels of education and other qualifications. Some applicants also admitted having a criminal record, while other applicants reported no such record. As might be expected, applicants with a criminal record were hired at lower rates than those without a record. However, in striking evidence of racial discrimination in hiring, African American applicants without a criminal record were hired at the same low rate as the white applicants with a criminal record.

Test Yourself


Section 9.4 References

Appier, J. (1998). Policing women: The sexual politics of law enforcement and the LAPD. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. 

Blank, E. C., P. Venkatachalam, L. McNeil and R. D. Green. (2005). Racial discrimination in mortgage lending in Washington, D.C.: A mixed methods approach. The Review of Black Political Economy, 33(2), 9–30. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, November 30). Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.  Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, December 10). Introduction to COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.  Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/racial-ethnic-disparities/index.html.

Ezeala-Harrison, F., G. B. Glover and J.  Shaw-Jackson. (2008). Housing loan patterns toward minority borrowers in Mississippi: Analysis of some micro data evidence of redlining. The Review of Black Political Economy, 35(1), 43–54. 

Feagin, J. R. (1991). The continuing significance of race: Antiblack discrimination in public places. American Sociological Review, 56, 101–116. 

Federal Bureau of Investigations. (2020). Crime Data Explorer. Retrieved from https://crime-data-explorer.fr.cloud.gov/pages/explorer/crime/hate-crime

Federal Bureau of Investigations. (2021). Crime Data Explorer. Retrieved from https://crime-data-explorer.fr.cloud.gov/pages/explorer/crime/hate-crime

Furstenberg, Jr., F. F.; T. D. Cook.; J. Eccles,; G. H. Elder, Jr.; and A.  Sameroff. (1999). Managing to Make It: Urban Families and Adolescent Success. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Garriga, Carlos., Lowell R.. Ricketts,  and Don Schlagenhauf. (2017). The Homeownership Experience of Minorities During the Great Recession. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, 9(1), 139-67. Retrieved from https://research.stlouisfed.org/publications/review/2017/02/15/the-homeownership-experience-of-minorities-during-the-great-recession/.

Getachew, Y., L. Zephyrin, M, K. Abrams, A. Shah, C. Lewis and M. M. Doty.  (2020, September 10). Beyond the Case Count: The Wide-Ranging Disparities of COVID-19 in the United States. The Commonwealth Fund. Retrieved from https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/2020/sep/beyond-case-count-disparities-covid-19-united-states.

Hirsh, C. E. and Y. Cha. (2008). Understanding employment discrimination: A multilevel approach. Sociology Compass, 2(6), 1989–2007. 

Logan, J. R. (2011). Separate and unequal: The neighborhood gap for blacks, Hispanics and Asians in metropolitan America. New York, NY: US201 Project.

MacGillis, A. (2009, July 27). Neighborhoods key to future income, study finds. The Washington Post, p. A06.

Mapping inequality. (n.d.).  Digital Scholarship Lab. Retrieved from https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=5/39.1/-94.58.

Massey, D. S. and N. A. Denton.  (1993). American Apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Merton, R. K. (1949). Discrimination and the American creed. In R. M. MacIver (Ed.), Discrimination and national welfare (pp. 99–126). New York, NY: Institute for Religious Studies. 

Pager, D. (2007). Marked: Race, crime, and finding work in an era of mass incarceration. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 

Schulman, K. A., J. A. Berlin, W. Harless, J. F. Kerner, S. Sistrunk, B. J. Gersh and J. J. Escarce.  (1999). The effect of race and sex on physicians’ recommendations for cardiac catheterization. The New England Journal of Medicine, 340, 618–626. 

Segura, D. A. (1992). Chicanas in white-collar jobs: “You have to prove yourself more.” In C. G. Ellison & W. Martin (Eds.), Race and ethnic relations in the United States: Readings for the 21st century (pp. 79–88). Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury. 

Sharkey, P. (2009). Neighborhoods and the black-white mobility gap. Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts.  Retrieved from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/0001/01/01/neighborhoods-and-the-blackwhite-mobility-gap.

Smedley, B. D., A. Y. Stith and A. R.  Nelson,. (Eds.). (2003). Unequal treatment: Confronting racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. 

Turner, M. A., F. Freiberg, E. Godfrey, C. Herbig, D. K. Levy, and R. R.  Smith. (2002). All other things being equal: A paired testing study of mortgage lending institutions. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers Third Quarter 2021. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/wkyeng.pdf.

All Rights Reserved Content

National Public Radio.  (2018, April 11).  Housing segregation and redlining in America: A short history.  Code Switch, NPR. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5FBJyqfoLM.

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Barr, Scott, Sarah Hoiland, Shailaja Menon, Cathay Matresse, Florencia Silverira and Rebecca Vonderhaar.  (n.d.).  Introduction to Sociology. Introduction to Sociology | Simple Book Production. Lumen Learning.  License: CC BY 4.0. License Terms:  Access for free at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-introductiontosociology/.

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