Whether discrimination is good or bad depends entirely on the basis for making the choice. Groups, employers, and individuals rightly choose to avoid the indolent and the violent. The wrong comes when we discriminate against someone solely on the basis of race, sex, or something like that.

I was having dinner with two Caucasian women in the division dining tent in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004. One was the division JAG (legal) officer and the other was another staff officer. One of them turned the conversation to discrimination and racial profiling, with the women relating stories from their experience. Our warm joviality cooled like hot cider on a snowy day. The staffer related a time when, while in the Miami airport, someone spoke to her in Spanish. She replied with exasperation, “couldn’t he just have looked at me and known that I couldn’t speak Spanish”. Growing weary of the conversation I replied, “No, because that would have been racial profiling.” The cooling relations froze like dry ice and we departed. We got along famously before and after, but that topic was relational poison.

As was our experience, there are few things that can spoil a pleasant conversation more quickly and more effectively than the topic of discrimination. I approach it now with caution. Most conversations about discrimination refer to unjust bias against people or groups of people on the basis of their race, sex, or something else. This is only a small segment of the bias we see in the world.

The Definition

The root of the word “Discrimination” is Latin, where the verb discrimire’ means “to separate, to distinguish, to make a distinction”. Appealing to the American Heritage Dictionary, discrimination is…

1. The act of discriminating 2. The ability or power to see or make fine distinctions 3. An act based on prejudice

So we see that in the two of the three definitions, each of us discriminates every day. By choosing pancakes over eggs, or a Ford over a Honda, we are discriminating. When we decide which chair to sit in on entering a room, we discriminate. When choosing a high quality wedding ring over a poor quality one, we are discriminating. In much of life, to be discriminating is a good thing, as in a discriminating shopper or a discriminating wine connoisseur. In the realm of people we generally think that discrimination is bad.

But is it? Do we not discriminate when we choose a spouse? Does our company not discriminate by choosing talented and industrious employees over dull and indolent ones? Do we not discriminate against Mitt Romney when we vote for Barack Obama, and vice versa? The US court system, the venue through which many people who have suffered real or perceived discrimination seek redress, itself discriminates against people, not only in how it rules but also in what cases it chooses to hear.

In some cases are we not expected to discriminate against other people? Are parents not expected to help their own children with their homework before helping the children next door? Should a husband buy flowers for his wife in equal proportion to those he buys for the other women at his work? Certainly not, and so we see that in many circumstances, discrimination is socially accepted and even considered a positive good. The real issue is not discrimination, but on what basis one discriminates.

The third definition of discrimination noted above is “an act based on prejudice”. Prejudice comes from the idea of “pre-judging”, and is not necessarily negative. Since humans have neither the time nor the information to judge every individual item in a set, we take limited information and generalize to the whole set. For example, my aunt and uncle used to only buy Toyota vehicles. They had had bad experiences with General Motors and some foreign brands and generalized these experiences with individual cars to all cars made by these brands. Since they did not have the time or information to check every individual vehicle from every manufacturer to see which would be the best for them, they pre-judged, never even visiting a car lot that was not Toyota. The upside for these relatives was the ability to make a decision; had they not pre-judged they may have been paralyzed with choices. The downside was the chance that they would miss a better vehicle made by some other manufacturer. On the other side of the equation, if you worked for Toyota this pre-judging was good and if you worked for any other car company this was bad.

Prejudging people is more of a problem, because people have feelings and rights which objects such as cars do not. We may prejudge people for the same reason that we prejudge objects; it is easier to categorize than to discover, or we may prejudge them to make ourselves feel superior, or for some other reason. Regardless, prejudice against other people minimizes their humanity, hurts their feelings, underestimates their strengths, and robs the judger (individual, group or organization) of the positive benefits that the target of the prejudice could bring.

More on Discrimination

Having evaluated the three definitions above and having determined that while pre-judging people has little or nothing to commend it, discrimination can be positive. At least it needs to be further investigated.

We all discriminate in different areas of life. Selecting a black female for a job over a Hispanic male would be discriminatory by definition, but not necessarily wrong if the job was for a teacher and the black female was a teacher while the Hispanic male had only been a teaching assistant. In this case the best person for the job, not the sex and race, would be the main discriminating factor.

Discrimination is bad when people treat other people poorly on the basis of something that they cannot control, such as disability, race, age, or sex. It is also generally considered bad when people treat others poorly on the basis of some things that they can control, such as religion or nationality. The most extreme example is slavery, which has been practiced by every people group and on every continent throughout history. Less odious is preferentially selecting someone for a job, a loan, or some other benefit because they belong to a particular race, sex or age group. World history is replete with examples of individual and corporate discrimination, causing real suffering in whichever group is “unfavored”. Not only does it harm the receiver of such bias, it also harms the sender. How much talent, industry and character are lost to individuals, organizations and societies because they excluded the contribution of those that they did not like? Morally as well, such discrimination is impermissible.

Discrimination on the basis of physical characteristics, however, is not always wrong. In our zeal to agree that “all men are created equal”, we forget that this phrase refers to all men being created equal before their God and before the law of the nation. Did the Founding Fathers really believe that everyone is equally smart, strong, beautiful, artistic, coordinated, etc? Do we? Or do we believe that everyone should be equally smart, strong, beautiful, artistic, coordinated, etc? We trumpet Equal Opportunity, but is our real desire Equal Outcome? If we want equal outcome, do we want equal outcome for each individual, or equal outcome on average, for each group. If the later, which groups, and how do we define them?

The question of women in combat is an example. For various reasons including physical strength and traditional social roles, the US Army did not put women into combat units. Some feel that this was unjust, arguing the social roles are discriminatory, and that some women are stronger than some men. Setting aside the social role argument and assuming that physical strength is a just discriminator for who should be in combat, strength would still favor men because they are significantly stronger on average than women. The Army recognizes this in its standards for Physical Fitness Testing. An 18 year old woman must do 13 pushups, 47 sit-ups, and run 2 miles in 19:42 to graduate from basic training. An 18 year old man must do 35 pushups, 47 sit-ups, and run 2 miles in 16:36 to graduate. The woman can have 30% body fat, but the man only 24%. These standards are by definition discriminatory, but few object. Women have a statistically significant greater risk of musculoskeletal injury than men. In the issue of women in combat, the Army was clearly discriminating, but was it just?

The Olympic Games, most professional and college sports and other sporting events have separate competitions for men and women in many sports. This is discrimination, but is it bad? Which distinctions between the sexes are good and which are evidence of unjust discrimination?

Some feel that men are overrepresented in senior positions in companies and that this is evidence of discrimination. Implicit in this statement is the value judgment that being in a senior position in a company is a good thing. This statement also implies that some percentage of representation is optimal for each sex (50%?), and that men and women value those senior positions equally. It may be true that “overrepresentation” is evidence of discrimination, but it also may be true that men on average value such a position more than women do. These same people often complain that women tend to be overrepresented in jobs with lower pay such as nursing and secretarial work, or jobs with no pay at all such as homemaking. While it is true that women make up 50% of the population but more than 50% of the nurses, teachers and homemakers, it does not follow that this is necessarily bad. Is a corporate vice president really more significant than a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary? Is any job more important than keeping a home and raising children? In the modern developed world, men and women can clearly do the same work, and for any given job a given individual from one sex will do better than a given individual from the other. Some women are far better corporate executives than some men, and some men are far better nurses than some women. This does not mean, however, that men and women on the whole are equally suited for all jobs, or that overrepresentation is de facto unjust discrimination.

Are there factors of nature and nurture which make the sexes, on average, better suited for different jobs? US childcare workers were 97% female in 2012 (http://paa2012.princeton.edu/papers/120870). 92% of US registered nurses in 2003 were female (http://www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/Qf-nursing.htm). In 2007-2008, 84% of US public and 87% of private elementary school teachers were female (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_tsp.pdf). 96% of secretarial and administrative assistant jobs were held by women in the US in 2010 (http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-male-dominated-industries-and-occupations-us-and-canada). Note also that women are the primary caretakers of children in the home. Are these coincidences? Do they reflect an underlying preference or aptitude? Or are these statistics evidence of unjust discrimination against women? Are they a combination? Unjust discrimination is certainly widespread, but the knee-jerk opinion that these facts represent unjust discrimination is not necessarily true.

In truth, the only people who value one type of position more than another are those who don’t understand the importance of the team. Consider a patient who has a surgery. Before the surgery, the staff in the primary care office is the most important to the patient because they do the initial evaluation and make the correct diagnosis. During the surgery, the anesthesia and surgical team, doctors, nurses and others, are the most important. After the surgery the recovery and ward teams are the most important. No single person or team is the most important to the patient all the time. In our society, the surgeon may make more money and get more acclaim, but are fortune and fame the right measure of value? Absolutely not. In reality, each team member is equally important.

Some attest that a pay disparity between men and women is evidence of unjust discrimination. If all else is equal, that would be true. With equal training, experience, and performance, men and women should be paid the same amount by their employer for doing the same job. The Federal government has a pretty good system for achieving this. It assigns a General Schedule (GS) grade from 1-15 to indicate the base salary for all positions in that GS grade. Experience is indicated by the step number, ranging from 1-10. For example, a registered nurse starting in Federal service will be a GS9, step 1, regardless of whether that person is male or female, white, black or some other ethnicity, religious or non-religious. After two years of acceptable service, each nurse will be promoted one step and receive a commensurate pay increase. A more experienced nurse may start as a GS9, step 4. Some large companies and other organizations have similar systems, but each entity should have some system to minimize unfair differences in pay. This is a reasonable way to avoid unjust discrimination.


Our first task when discussing discrimination is to understand what we are talking about. In a broad sense, everyone discriminates every day and in every aspect of life. In the same broad sense, much discrimination is good and necessary.

Our second task is to be clear that discrimination against people solely on the basis of things that they cannot change, and some things that they can change, is bad. Prejudice (pre-judging) cannot be accepted when applied to people. There are always favored groups and unfavored ones, and these groups change depending upon the culture and the issue at hand. Favoring one group of people over another on the wrong basis is unacceptable. It is OK to favor the trained and industrious in making personnel decisions; it is not OK to favor solely by race, sex, disability or age. In the military, in business, and in every area of society, good people must oppose unjust discrimination.

Our third task as organizations and as a society is to promote freedom and individual expression while balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of society. While we oppose unjust discrimination, we must not pretend that everyone is the same. It is wrong to denigrate one set of positive activities (and therefore those who do them), crush everyone into a single definition of success, and then complain when we don’t get equal outcomes.

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