Character  &  Context

Subtle doesn’t mean harmless: How Modern Discrimination Maintains Social Inequality

Road sign that says "Warning Inequality"

By: Serena Does

Departing from recent history, it is no longer socially acceptable in many societies to stereotype or discriminate against groups of people. However, as outlined in a recent edition of Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, this does not mean that discrimination is a thing of the past. Naomi Ellemers and Manuela Barreto discuss research that establishes that rather than being eliminated, old-fashioned discrimination has been replaced by more subtle, modern forms of discrimination. Where old-fashioned stereotypes were often negative and openly devaluing, modern stereotypes may praise groups for their presumed excellence in certain domains, such as when blacks are praised for their athletic ability or when women are praised for their caring nature. Many scholars have argued that although these stereotypes are more subtle than their old-fashioned counterparts, it should be emphasized that they are by no means harmless.

While legal changes and shifts in social norms dictate non-discrimination, group-based disparities continue to exist in important domains of life, such as income, housing, and health. Ellemers and Barreto argue that because many people believe that everyone has the same opportunities to succeed in today’s society, group-based disparities are often viewed as indicating differences in individuals’ abilities or ambitions rather than as evidence of discrimination. The authors point out that attempts at improving minorities’ competencies are unlikely to reduce systemic inequality, seeing as scientific research has repeatedly ruled out the existence of group differences in relevant abilities or ambitions. Instead, the authors argue that the assertion that all individuals have equal opportunities serves to maintain group-based inequality and can be considered as a form of discrimination in itself. 

How Does Modern Discrimination Maintain Social Inequality? 

Ellemers and Barreto explain that when majorities assume that there are equal opportunities, majorities ascribe group-based disparities to minorities’ lack of ability or motivation, resulting in implicit forms of bias in majorities’ treatment of minorities. When minorities face these implicit forms of bias, they experience anxiety and heightened concerns about their abilities. Such concerns and anxieties consume cognitive resources which may result in performance loss among minorities, thereby confirming stereotypes about their group. The authors point out that at the same time, those individuals who are seen as violating stereotypical expectations, such as women executives, tend to be evaluated negatively. Although modern discrimination may be subtle, it has been linked to lower self-esteem, less life satisfaction, as well as poorer psychological and physical health among minorities.
Catch 22: When Minorities Try to Avoid Discrimination by Distancing Themselves
A member of a stereotyped group may try to distance themselves from their group in an attempt to avoid being discriminated. However, this is often not an effective strategy, and may even end up being harmful to minorities, according to Ellemers and Barreto. The authors give examples of a woman who emphasizes her superior competence relative to other women, and a gay person who tries to conceal their sexual orientation at work. The authors point out that it can be harmful to distance oneself from those who suffer similar fates, because the likelihood of social rejection is increased and important sources of social support are forfeited. In the example of a gay person concealing their sexual orientation at work, the negative psychological consequences of hiding one's ‘true self’ are often distracting, and can undermine performance, and harm mental and physical health. In the example of a woman presenting herself as being exceptional relative to other women, the stereotypical expectation about other women’s subpar competence is likely to be maintained. In both of the authors’ examples, minorities’ strategies to escape discrimination can actually backfire and maintain social inequality.
Why Not Confront Discrimination Head on?
The authors argue that there are several reasons why discrimination often goes by undetected. Because modern forms of discriminations are harder to recognize as such, people are likely to underreport unequal treatment. At the same time, much of the policies aimed at fighting discrimination, rely on targets of discrimination to come forward, and expose, or even confront discriminatory practices. However, the authors point out an important paradox that explains why it is not easy to complain for those who are disadvantaged. In order to be able to confront unfair treatment, people have to feel a sense of belongingness, which is often not the case for those who are being stereotyped and otherwise disadvantaged. Furthermore, individuals who complain about unequal treatment are often disliked by others, whether or not the complaints are valid. Thus, confronting discrimination comes with considerable social cost.
Modern Times Call for Modern Measures
As Ellemers and Barreto have made clear, we cannot presuppose minorities’ awareness of implicit bias given the subtle, modern forms of discrimination. Thus, as old-fashioned discrimination has generally been replaced by modern, harder-to-detect forms of discrimination, anti-discrimination policies that rely solely on targets of discrimination to expose discrimination have become outdated. Instead, Ellemers and Barreto argue that we should turn to scientific evidence on how modern discrimination maintains social inequality so we can develop more effective, more modern measures to combat discrimination. 
Serena Does is a postdoctoral fellow at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research is focused on the psychology of intergroup relations and inequality. She can be reached at
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