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"Structural Discrimination: An International Perspective,"

by Najcevska Mirjana November/December 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

Structural Discrimination: An International Perspective

Note: From time to time, P&R has offered theoretical articles on the general topic of structural racism and social exclusion—most recently, in the March/April and May/June 2009 issues. Here, from a long-time human rights activist (President from 2001-07 of the Republic of Macedonia’s Helsinki Comm. For Human Rights), is a restatement of the theory from a European perspective. — CH

Discrimination started with slavery and genocide. With the absolute deprivation of the right to be considered a human being. Such deprivation excluded groups of people from the human family and from everything connected with making one’s own decisions because of belonging to a specific race, religion, sex, etc.

Discrimination nowdays is not as violent, but it is still about deprivation of basic rights and about differential treatment of human beings because of their characteristics or origin. Since the early 1990s, much of the theoretical work on discrimination has attempted to make visible the many ways in which discrimination occurs beyond the forms of deliberate exclusion. Hence, three types of discrimination have been identified: Individual, Institutional, and Structural.

I want to speak about structural discrimination—the new dark star in the discriminatory sky.

Structural discrimination primarily relates to the ways in which the common behavior and equal legislation and the same norms for everybody can affect, and obscure, discriminatory intent. Such discrimination may be either open or hidden, and it could occur intentionally or unintentionally. Structural discrimination is about "them" and "us."

There are three essential components to structural discrimination:

A. Equal treatment of people with different status

  • The equal treatment could be discriminatory when we are working with people with different statuses. This often happen with people who are historically, by tradition or as a result of common behavior based on long-lasting stereotypes and prejudices, placed in a disadvantaged position. As an example: All people living in towns should have heating devices based on solar collectors. This is for everybody, the same rule, and, also a good rule. In my country (Republic of Macedonia), the result would be that a significant number of Roma people would have to leave towns, as they would not have the money to pay for this change. Really, it is the same for all poor people (Roma and non-Roma); however, if we have in mind that 90% of Roma are poor, then it is clear that segregation on the basis of ethnicity will occur. At this point we are entering the discussion of the historic background and previous discrimination which placed Roma people in this position. At the same time, we are entering the space of structural discrimination. Namely, segregation will result in: further continuation of prejudices, disadvantage concerning the availability of cultural, educational and other services, worse living conditions, and further geographic marginalization.

  • When the specific conditions required to access certain jobs, career development, education, services, etc. are the same for everybody, this could lead to structural discrimination. If these conditions or rules can only be met by a small number of people from a specific group, then the existence of this condition or rule, provided it is not an essential criterion for specific jobs, career development, education, services, etc., indicates the presence of structural discrimination. For example: To become a police officer, you must be more than 1.70 cm tall. Most women and many people from some ethnicities will be excluded from the possibility to get this job.

B. Common behavior (expectations or behavior)

Structural discrimination is based on tradition, religion and social acceptability. The key phrases associated with structural discrimination are: This is the "way it was always done," "the way everybody acts,” “the way that is accepted by the majority and nobody will blame me if I behave like this." When an individual or an institution acts in accordance with a society’s prevailing norms and pre-conceived notions concerning specific groups (ethnic, religious, age, gender, etc.), with negative impact on the members of these groups, we can assume that it is a question of structural discrimination.
  • Common behavior is constituted of: tradition (it is exactly as my grandpa and grandma were doing), religion (it is settled in the holy book), and socio-acceptable behavior (everybody is doing this).

  • Very often, structural discrimination related to the past. Racial, ethnic, gender or religious privilege reaches far back into humankind’s past. The traditional hierarchy and traditional order of power is an important source of inequality and restrictions on the fulfilment of basic human rights and freedoms. It ensures, for example, that some people are available to do society's dirty work at low wages.

  • Our historical heritage is supporting the circle of discrimination based on common behavior. Historically, institutions defined and enforced norms and role relationships that were racially distinct. Laws, customs and traditions usually continue to reinforce current thinking, as institutions have an inertial quality: Once set in motion, they tend to continue on the same course.

  • Impunity is tightly linked to structural discrimination. When I am doing as my parents were doing, as is proscribed by my religion and like everybody else, then I am not doing wrong, or, at least, I will not be blamed for this. Part of structural discrimination is a lack of perception of discrimination (from the side of the person who discriminates and even from the side of the person who is discriminated against).

C. Blaming of the victim

Structural discrimination regularly refers to the responsibility of the victim of discrimination for his/her own situation. It is either the culture of the victim (part of "their" traditional behavior that puts them in a disadvantaged situation); passivity ("they" do not use the possibilities or mechanisms of the system); indifference (many thing are going wrong for "them" just because "they" do not care); personal choice ("they" like being without jobs, going around and begging); ignorance (probably the "softest" shifting of blame, implying that many things happen because of a lack of knowledge and information). The common denominator for all of these "explanations" is that all of them are the responsibility of the victim of discrimination.

The result of this approach in whole is: a) blaming the victim for what is happening, and b) either denying the existence of discrimination or justification of discriminatory behavior with the introduction of the "victimization syndrome" phenomenon.

At the same time, this action contributes to recreating structural discrimination. Namely, in these circumstances the perpetrator of discrimination could even parade as a friend to discriminated people, very much concerned about them and hoping to free them from the debilitating mindset of victimization.

Why is structural discrimination so dangerous?

A. Structural discrimination is more than social action; in its repeated and reiterated forms it develops into a social structure. It becomes habitual and is taken for granted in all sorts of invisible ways: in the design of neighborhoods, the making of foreign policy or tax policy, or the writing of television news; in the way one is addressed by a policeman, treated by a doctor, or expected to speak the language.

B. Structural discrimination is more subtle and less intentional than open acts of discrimination. As a result, establishing blame for this kind of discrimination is extremely difficult. There is obvious, but erroneous, cause for many people to believe that racism is no longer a problem and— where it is—that they have no personal responsibility for its existence as a consequence of the decrease in direct, public displays of racism. Sometimes, only the negative effects for some groups indicate the existence of discrimination.

C. Structural discrimination in many cases does not go beyond the law. It is part of the law. Yet it is always in a visibly different position depending on the status of the person in question. For example: the black perpetrators of crimes connected with drug distribution are not punished beyond what the law dictates. The punishment is according to the law, as well as the punishments of the white perpetrators of crimes connected with drug distribution. However, most of the sentences for black people are the maximum available, while most of the sentences for white people are the minimum.Or at least there are much higher sentences for (as an example) marijuana dealers (mainly black) than for cocaine dealers (predominantly among the white population).

D. Structural discrimination is linked to systematic biases towards certain groups. The individuals and institutions might simply find it more difficult to make judgments in cultural contexts other than their own and choose to err consistently on the side of caution by over-diagnosing or under-diagnosing the specific cases in these more unfamiliar circumstances. This could lead to a situation where public policy has generally either ignored or penalized the tradition or different culture of certain groups of people.

What we can do?

What strategy can be used to fight such discrimination?

Tackling structural discrimination means leaving behind the usual way of dealing with discrimination which is predominantly based on a demand approach. It implies leaving the mainly reactive approach, as well as approaches directed towards the behavior.
Structural discrimination cannot be fought by solving individual cases, by the State solely reacting after a victim makes a claim or with changing the behavior of individuals. Confronting structural discrimination requires the reexamination of basic cultural values and fundamental principles of social organization.

So far, the predominant individual-oriented approach in conceptualization of anti-discrimination legislation demonstrates the weaknesses of individual punishment of the perpetrator of discrimination.

First, many cases of discrimination go unpunished because not every victim is prepared to allege discrimination in front of a court. Second, the individual cases are not enough to influence the policies in the direction of changing discriminatory practices. There is a need for systematic opposition to discrimination and the development of the institutions capable of doing this.
Hence, I strongly believe that there is a need to shift the whole approach to combating discrimination. The institutions necessary for achieving these goals can only emerge from policies that promote inclusion. Inclusive institutions can provide better services for the whole population, build human and social capital, increase services and the rule of law, and facilitate more sustainable and equitable economic development.

In this sense, the statistical presentation of disaggregated data could be used as an appropriate tool in dealing with structural discrimination. By breaking down the data to a level that deals directly with specific groups of people, the real picture of discrimination can begin to appear.

So, the main change in the approach is a shift from the original mode of action which is based on individual complaints against action of discrimination (mainly reactive from the point view of the involvement of the State and judiciary system) towards a much more systematic approach and active involvement of the State (positive action). We can say the fight against discrimination should step out of the courts and into the sphere of education and politics. The State should lead the way by multilayered activities against structural discrimination. The State is the actor that should create the framework and the general atmosphere of equality. The process starts by building mechanisms of identification of structural discrimination. The next step is defining the basic parameters of behavior. The third level is the holistic approach—implementation in all the spheres of public life, regardless of acting within the public or private structures or individuals, and regardless of the ground of discrimination.

Najcevska Mirjana is Professor of Law and Human Rights at Univ. “Ss. Cyril and Methodius.” najce2000@

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