Commentary: The Difference Between Prejudice and Discrimination

An important op-ed out of Baltimore asks people to remember the distinction between biases.

Posted: 06/14/2012 06:56 PM EDT

When it comes to bigotry in America, many people think one definition fits all. Racism is racism is racism, and the only difference, perhaps, is to what extent that racism goes. For instance, most people would agree that though they both originate from the same place, painting a swastika on somebody’s garage door isn’t as bad as a neo-Nazi violently beating someone.


It turns out, however, that not all bigotry is the same. And, according to a new op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, recognizing those differences, specifically between prejudice and discrimination, is an important step toward a more racially just America.

In a piece called “African-Americans face prejudice — but not much discrimination,” Norman Gelman, the chairman of Maryland’s Commission on Civil Rights, explains what Blacks need to know about the difference between “discrimination” and “prejudice.” In a world that’s becoming increasingly litigious when it comes to issues of racial bias, Gelman says being educated about what you can actually fight in court is the first step in your battle:

I'm not arguing that the time of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" has arrived. I continue to believe that prejudice against African-Americans persists, that many employers (particularly in small shops) would rather not hire Latinos, that somewhere close to half the American population is ill-disposed toward gays and a much larger proportion actively despises transgender individuals. I doubt that most personnel managers are happy to see disabled applicants.

But, while many complainants seem not to understand it, enforcing anti-discrimination law is different from eradicating prejudice. Our agency's investigators must find evidence to prove that discrimination has occurred. They can't enforce suspicions.

Gelman’s point is that there’s a difference between a person having an unspoken hatred for Blacks — “prejudice” — and them acting on that hatred — “discrimination.” The difference being that discrimination is an action that can be proved, while prejudice is merely an emotion; you can’t sue someone for harboring an emotion.

This is an interesting problem that things like affirmative action and anti-discrimination lawsuits have created: A society in which it’s acknowledged that racial bias in hiring is wrong, but also a society in which racist people are still firing people of color. It’s just that now the racists are cloaking their racism under things like financially motivated layoffs. For instance, when it came to the public sector’s recent layoffs, Black public workers were one-third more likely to be laid off than their white counterparts. This isn’t to say that every laid off Black worker was fired for being Black, but it is likely that prejudice against African-Americans ensured that at least some of them were let go before their white colleagues.

In essence, the simple difference between prejudice and discrimination is this: They’re both terrible, but you’re only able to prove one. Oftentimes, the scariest thing about racism is its invisibility.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.



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