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Who gets to decide what’s discrimination?

September 30, 2009

Recently, CNN announced the results of a Pew Study: muslims and gays most discriminated in America!Letting aside the ridiculously ambiguous wording for now, isn’t it odd that one can just declare which group is most discriminated in America? The immediate questions that come to mind right now are:

1. Who’s deciding who is most discriminated against?
2. Which marginalized groups are even included?
3. Does it really matter?

Fortunately, if you look more at the Pew study, you see they kept careful record of the identity of those they surveyed (at least, of the identities provided). This is not always the case. For example, the Princeton Review has come under criticism for how it determines whether schools are ‘LGBT friendly’. The list comes entirely from one survey question, asking responders whether they agree or disagree with this statement:

Students, faculty, and administrators treat all persons equally regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.

Campus Pride argues that most of the respondents will be straight students, and their perceptions of discrimination will probably be different than LGBT students themselves. They’ve instead come up with their own Climate Index, based on a variety of factors including housing policies, LGBT studies, student organizations, institutional support, discrimination policies, and student life. Carleton does pretty well! (Although it’s interesting to compare these results with the factors and responses from our own Campus Climate Survey.)

Obviously, it’s hard to quantify discrimination, and I’m not sure anyone, even among a marginalized group, would completely agree on their expectations for treatment by the majority. It’s interesting to look at too what groups are even given consideration in terms of discrimination. Looking back at the Pew Study, the groups discussed are, the majority of religious views, gays and lesbians, blacks, hispanics, and women. Notice how a variety groups aren’t included: the disabled, transsexuals, other ethnic groups not defined by religion… the list goes on. Also notice that whites and men aren’t included, even though affirmative action has gotten some yelling about reverse discrimination against rich white males! (aka blurg)

With so many groups left out, and multi-layered identities not adressed it leads me to wonder -do these reports even matter? Calculating discrimination seems so difficult. (so if muslims are discriminated against 58% of the time, and gays are discriminated against 64% of the time, how often are gay muslims discriminated against?) And I worry it leaves out the multiplicity of experiences, identities, and expectations of marginalized groups. I normally just go by – if someone feels marginalized and oppressed – those feelings are valid and we should respect them.

But then we also shouldn’t have to put responsibility of calling out discrimination on those who are feeling it themselves. I don’t think the marginalized have any responsibility to fight others privilege, but rather we must recognize power and privilege in ourselves.

With all these mixed feelings, I come across the (now not so new) issue of Jimmy Carter calling racism on treatment of Obama:

But only 12% of American’s have agreed that opponent of Obama’s health care plan are racist and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Obama “does not believe that it is based on the color of his skin”

So what do you think? Does Obama really not think its racism, or would it just be political kryptonite to say so? Should Carter have the right to declare racism where others say it doesn’t exist? What are the implications of this series of events on anti-racist work?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. cellardoor10 permalink
    October 3, 2009 4:58 PM

    I can’t understand how someone could cite this study the way they do. It doesn’t say anything about how the people feel discriminated against, or what consitutes that, or taking data from hate crimes, lawsuits, etc. (both of those are problematic methodologies in their own way, but that’s another point), but it is measuring how other people perceive discrimination. The question is, “There is a lot of discrimination against … ” … and that’s it. All it tells us is that a random sample of people, of varying identities, think that there is a lot of discrimination against certain groups. I have to be really skeptical of that. I would respect it far more if it went in more detail, sampling people of historically marginalized groups, and defined what discrimination meant.

    If all you need is a public opinion poll saying people perceive Muslims and LG(B?) people as discriminated against, then you have it, but it doesn’t actually say anything about who is ACTUALLY discriminated against or what they think.

    • Becky permalink
      October 5, 2009 11:17 AM

      I totally agree with you. What the study actually says is: “these groups of people think these groups of people have it worst off.” Which honestly is very interesting sociological data. What are white perceptions of discrimination against black as opposed to muslims? What are muslim’s perceptions of discrimination against their identity group as opposed to another? etc. I’m honestly really interested in these sorts of questions and how respondents would answer them. However, the use of the data does not actually reflect the data collected. As you said, it doesn’t say anything about who actually feels discriminated against and why, which is how they are trying to use the polls. Though, if the goal is to actually quantify who’s discriminated against more, I’m not sure any statistical study will be of value.

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