An article at Slate by Tim Harford contains some shockers. The question of the pervasiveness of discrimination is really the more important one, but let’s start with what seems to be a belief that it cannot exist.
Thus the first shocker:
… one thing we economists think we know about discrimination is that competition should tend to erode it.
The idea comes from an article published 50 years ago by economist and Nobel laureate Gary Becker. The reasoning is simple enough: A business that deliberately offers shoddy service or uncompetitive prices to some customers, or that turns down smart minority applicants in favor of less-qualified white male applicants, is throwing money away. If it is a government bureaucracy or a powerful monopolist, that’s a loathsome but sustainable choice. But racist or sexist businesses with many competitors are likely to be shut down by the bankruptcy courts long before the human rights lawyers get to them.
Cognitive psychologists and neuroeconomists are happily placing things economists think they know in question, but doesn’t ordinary experience make this one seem implausible? As a white women, I dread dealing with, for example, car dealers, garage mechanics and anyone who has installed a fancy computer thermostat on a heating system. Educational institutions are not high on my list of institutions with equitable practices either, nor medical ones. The list for minorities would include much more.
A comment from Harford suggests that an economist might say that the market is still working on it. If so, it is clearly too slow.
The second: I suspect many of us think that discrimination is very pervasive, but we might be reluctant to say so in a professional context, because we do not have the evidence. Well, perhaps it should be collected, given the research by Caitlin Knowles Myers that Harford reports on. The research, which is forthcoming in Applied Economics, is available here. And Harford has published further comments by Myers here. Here are the results as stated by Harford:
She, with her students as research assistants, staked out eight coffee shops … in the Boston area and watched how long it took men and women to be served. Her conclusion: Men get their coffee 20 seconds earlier than do women. (There is also evidence that blacks wait longer than whites, the young wait longer than the old, and the ugly wait longer than the beautiful. But these effects are statistically not as persuasive.)
20 seconds is hardly a big deal, and the length of time is really incidental. What is important is the question the report raises about is about how pervasive these small and almost subliminal acts of sexism and racism really are. And what is the price paid by a more stressful life?