Thursday, August 30, 2007

Discriminating between two Definitions of Discrimination

by Craig Ratchford, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

As the summer internship program comes to an end this week, I find it fitting to use my blog entry to discuss my experience this summer as a relative outsider to the Kirwan Institute’s mission. As my educational experience is limited to a degree in geography (though much of my studies focused on socioeconomic/political inequality and the racialization of space), I’ve had significantly less exposure to the plethora of racial academics/philosophy than some of my fellow interns, let alone the permanent staff. Therefore, I think I have a perspective unique in the office as a relative newcomer to the arena. I’d like to use this as an opportunity to discuss my personally surprising reaction to the word ‘discrimination.’

I, as everyone else, have grown up with the word. Its meaning was obvious to me since early youth: discrimination was the differential treatment of someone due to a certain characteristic; racial discrimination was racism. This understanding persisted through a fairly critical college curriculum. However, as I was exposed to different materials throughout this summer, I quickly realized something that had never occurred to me, which was excruciatingly obvious: racial discrimination was different from prejudice. I felt a little silly—in addition to offended—when I came across Justice Roberts’ statement that “the way to end racial discrimination is to stop discriminating by race.”

The contradiction in this statement represented my own inability to discriminate between two meanings given to the word discrimination. To be specific:

Discrimination—the power of making fine distinctions; discriminating judgment
Discrimination—treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit.

It seems to me that the latter is an extrapolation of the former, moving beyond a mere recognition of difference to a value judgment thereof. Justice Roberts (as I’m sure my audience understands) had advised that we stop making fine distinctions of race as the way to end unfair treatment of different races—a wonderful solution in a vacuum. But this snide (and sly) use of rhetoric not only ignores the grounding factors and the reality of structural/unconscious racism, he actually manages to switch the root of the problem away from structural racism and history toward those fighting to acknowledge the racially unequal consequences of these factors.

I think it pertinent to expand upon Justice Roberts, taking advantage of this dual definition of discrimination. To explain, I draw upon the blog entry posted by Samir Gambhir earlier this summer:

"(My friend) had represented the African American population in the map with the color black and the white population with the color white. He was concerned that he might be perceived as a racist...My friend was addressing this issue superficially. I know him well enough to say that he has no racist agenda, overt or covert, but it brings out the sensitivity of the issue. It seems that people are scared of being perceived as a racist, thus portraying oneself as being race-neutral is an absolute must. It makes me wonder if people are only trying to deal with the issue superficially or if the heightened awareness around this issue is transforming their beliefs and attitudes deep within?”

I’m not sure that a majority of people understand and realize the difference between the definitions of discrimination. For many people, it has become almost taboo to mention race for fear of appearing to be a racist—after all, they’d be ‘discriminating,’ right? Ignoring the existence of racial distinction seems like a much safer alternative. If you don’t see a difference, how can you be ‘making preferential treatment based on group status’?

Of course, failing to ‘recognize distinction’ automatically impedes every action taken to remedy the causes and reality of the concrete racial material gap of contemporary times. I believe that reconciling these two definitions (between making distinctions and bringing judgment) will make it easier for us to understand, accept, and discuss these issues with openness rather than self-consciousness.

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