Is your life permeated by discrimination?

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?

10 thoughts on “Is your life permeated by discrimination?

  1. Oh GOD. I’ve had this exact same argument with my dad about a million times . . . back before I started refusing to talk politics with him a few years ago. “We don’t have to make laws against discrimination, because businesses that discriminate will lose customers and go out of business.” It’s one of the most stupid, ignorant, illogical things I’ve ever heard anyone argue — though I’m sure that as a Republican white dude, it makes a lot of sense.

    Anyway, it makes my blood boil and I can’t believe that people would actually put that sort of shit in print.

  2. Cara, To be fair to Harford, he does say economists **think** it is true. But still, how could they? It’s a good case of being unaware of white-male privilege, I would think.

  3. I think discrimination will persist in a free market economy because it has a value to those people who want to discrimination. That is, a sexist or racist (or any kind of -ist) may be willing to pay the cost in lost revenues in order to continue to support their bias. Some people will value the buck more than their discriminatory practices, but there are certainly enough people and businesses who are willing to discriminate, even at risk of a law suit. (Frex, the class action suit against Walmart over sex discrimination in their employment practices.)

    Also, as you point out, so many discriiminatory practices are nearly invisible behaviors. I bet if you asked some of those male coffee baristas that they’d deny making their female customers wait longer than their male customers. How do we root out and change discriminatory behaviors that most of us don’t even realize that we are doing?

  4. It’s absolutely right that so much of this is at a very low-level, probably unconscious– and often consisting of tiny things which have their effect cumulatively (Virgina Valian is great on this). But even at the level of big things– take something really blatant like a policy against hiring black people– I don’t see why one should assume that people won’t do this. Even if it is definitely against their economic interests, there’s no guarantee that people will grasp this truth. They will probably have a self-sustaining set of beliefs– e.g. black people aren’t very smart so don’t make great employees; they’re poor so we don’t need them as customers, etc. One thing that always amazes me about traditional economists is the belief that people will always correctly see what is in their best interests. Leaving aside issues of prejudice, can’t every human being see from their own lives and those of their friends that people aren’t always right about what’s in their own best interests?

  5. I’m pretty sure the economists in question aren’t arguing that all business owners must somehow appreciate that non-discrimination is in their “best interest.” If discrimination is inviable from a competitive standpoint, it’s inviable whether you know what’s going on or not. It’s not important that employers who discriminate come to grips with things; it’s just that if they do indulge in this, they’ll lose out in the long run to competitors who don’t. This way, discrimination (any disadvantageous practice, really) isn’t curbed necessarily because everyone has correctly determined their best interests, but because those who fail to do so are effectively unfit and will be killed by the market. The argument doesn’t depend at all on people always being “right about what’s in their own best interests.”

  6. Malaikhanh, I wonder if a modified version of Jender’s complaint doesn’t still apply. Presumably, the general argument is that bad business practices do not survive because they make a company less fit than those without them. So there’s an assumption that there will be companies without the bad practices, and this assumption is questionable. It’s not the assumption that everyone will see the light, but it is the assumption that enough will to create eliminative pressures.

    Another thing that is strange is that it leaves out of account the intense pressures on businesses as a whole to continue in some discriminatory practices. E.g., at certain stages, to accept African American clients might have ruined a business.

  7. Malaikhanh, in an appropriate environment a business that discriminate against a group can persist a long long time. Take a housing market with more demand than supply. Banks, realtors, and landlords that discriminate against a group (in the US this is often minorities, especially Blacks) can easily keep that group out of certain neigborhoods without even affecting their bottom line because there are plenty of other desirable people to fill those homes and apartments.

  8. The Jender-Parents emailed me a quite separate interestig point about this. They are blog-shy, so I’m posting it for them:

    As we read over this item on the blog, it occurred to us that when dealing
    with “discrimination” in a coffee shop and self interest, it should be
    obvious that the servers have no self interest beyond their personal biases.

    In a coffee shop they do not receive personal tips (there may be a
    collective jar) and as non-owners or managers, they are not concerned about
    return business or amount of business.

    They can just go ahead and give better treatment to those who “please their
    eyes” – albeit it may be totally subconscious behaviour.

  9. That is a nice point, applying particularly to things so small that people hardly consciously register it, if they do at all.

    More egregious behavior might get complaints sent to the manager, but even then the manager might think “all women are hysterical” or some such (or is that only found at car repair places?).

    I meant to say, Jender, your member of Valian’s work above seems to me spot on.

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