Sociology 211

November 15, 2004


NOTE:  For the section on discrimination, I will be using the article “Are Muslims Discriminated Against in Canada Since September 2001?” by Denise Helly, published in  Canadian Ethnic Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2004, pp. 24-48.  FC104 C36.  A copy of the journal is on two-hour reserve at the University Library.  This reading is not required but if you wish to obtain more background on this issue, read this article.


Prejudice, racism, and discrimination


A.  Introduction


Isajiw introduces these issues in Chapter 5 and continues them in Chapter 6.  In addition to analyzing these phenomena, Isajiw examines five theories of prejudice, discusses the  effects of prejudice, and begins his analysis of how prejudice can be eliminated.  Fleras and Kunz deal with these issues in Chapters 2-7, introducing some of the concepts in Chapter 2, describing and analyzing their form and importance in the other chapters.  These chapters in the two books will form the topic for the next couple weeks of the semester.


Isajiw begins the discussion with ethnocentrism and discrimination (pp. 112-115), social distance and social standing (pp. 125-127), and then prejudice and racism (Chapter 6).  Fleras and Kunz concentrate on racism (pp. 32-41) and use some of these other terms in their discussion.  In addition to these terms, there are a variety of other terms that refer to the same matters.  Some of these are as follows.

·        Ethnocentrism

·        Discrimination – various and multiple forms

·        Harassment

·        Stereotypes

·        Xenophobia

·        Social distance and social standing

·        Values and attitudes

·        Prejudice

·        Racism – multiple meanings and forms – see Fleras and Kunz, pp. 33-41

·        Hate crimes

·        Barriers, inequalities, inequities, marginality

·        Ethnic stratification and ethnic status – closely connected to opportunities and inequality


In some manner, each of these refers to how others are viewed or treated by some individuals and groups or how opportunities are limited as a result of attitudes, values, institutions, and structures.  In addition, these can refer to the outcomes or position of members of minority groups in the social order and social structure.  Some of these terms can also be used to refer to negatives views and actions about other types of groupings (e.g. sex, age, disability, sexuality, region).  In this course, our concern is primarily with how these concepts are connected to individuals or groups in terms of race, ethnicity, national origin, culture, language, country of birth, immigrant status, and, in some cases, religion.


Some of these concepts involve personal and deliberate views or actions, others are more structural or unintentional, but both can be just as real in their effects on others.  In each of these concepts, group characteristics (race, language, culture, ethnicity) become identified with individuals and are used to divide people, often into “us” and “them” (Isajiw, p. 143).


Behind the contemporary view that these approaches constitute illegitimate ways of dealing with others is an approach that there should be some form of equality among all individuals.  That is, if prejudice, stereotyping, and racism are considered unacceptable, this is because we regard them as incorrect ways of thinking of or dealing with others, or possibly they are a violation of human rights.  In taking this approach, we are presumably adopting a view that all humans are equal in some sense, that there is a basic human dignity and equality, and where violations of this are unjust and unacceptable.  This view may be of relatively recent origin – throughout human history it was not uncommon to treat outsiders or those of another culture as inferior.  While most of us accept these views of equality, human dignity, and human rights, there are a number of difficulties that these produce when analyzing these issues.


·        Categorization and classification.  One problem is that raised by Isajiw on p. 165, where he states “Some social psychologists have thought that people cannot think of any objects or people without categorizing or typing them.”  In fact, the world would be difficult to comprehend if we did not have a way of classifying objects and people.  The need or desire to categorize and classify may be a basic human characteristic and a basis for language – much of what language does is classify and organize into categories.  While such categorization should not be associated with inferiority or  superiority of members of a group, it may sometimes be difficult to avoid stereotyping, that is, developing names or images for certain types of people. 


In addition, if some of the characteristics of a group are not recognized by others, this may be a cause of concern for members of that group.  For example, a religious group that observes Saturday as a the sabbath (Jews or Adventists) may request employers to recognize this.  Groups that insist on conscientious objector status for their members during wartime are asking for their distinctive status to be recognized.  On many other matters, members of these groups may be no different than citizens in general and expect to be treated the same as others.  But this singling out on some charactertistics can lead to categorization and stereotyping.


·        Legitimate and desirable discrimination.  A second, and related issue, is discrimination.  We all discriminate, making distinctions in various ways, and there are many reasonable and desirable grounds on which to discriminate.  In awarding grades in this class, I must discriminate on the basis of what I consider to be the quality of your work in the class.  If I did not do this and gave everyone the same grade, I would have difficulty continuing in my job as an instructor.  In hiring some people and not others, or paying some people more than others, employers discriminate – hopefully they discriminate on reasonable grounds rather than making this purely arbitrary or on the basis of race or ethnicity.  We regard it as necessary and reasonable to treat children differently than adults on some grounds (we make choices for them) but not on others (attempt to treat with respect).  The problem then becomes what are reasonable or acceptable grounds for discrimination.   In contemporary Canada, we generally regard race, ethnicity, national origin, language, as unreasonable and unacceptable grounds for discrimination, and some of these forms of discrimination are illegal.


·        Different development and cultures.  There is a third, related issue – those of different backgrounds often do have different amounts or qualities of characteristics on which we may wish to discriminate.  For example, in English Canada we may argue that individuals are required to know English in order to do certain jobs or perform at school.  But some know English better than others and many who do not know English are immigrants or French-speaking individuals.  This can result in these individuals being excluded on what may be reasonable grounds, just as those of us who are English speakers would be excluded in areas where another language is required.  In addition, some individuals may have more education or more abilities of a certain type than do others – where these are differentially developed by a culture, it may be that equal treatment is difficult.  By valuing certain types of education or abilities, we are eliminating individuals from a particular group, because they have not had the opportunity to develop those characteristics.  


Further, some characteristics are important for the culture of the group, and these may interfere with what are regarded as reasonable requirements associated with a job – e.g. should Jews and Adventists be required to work on Saturdays if these conflict with their religious beliefs. 


Where these differential developments of groups and cultural differences interact with grounds for reasonable discrimination, then the question that emerges is the extent to which the differences should be accommodated in a society where there is some formal statement of equality.  That is what are acceptable forms of accommodation (perhaps recognition of Saturdays, conscientious objector status, or wearing a turban) and what are unacceptable forms (polygamy, some types of arranged marriage, forms of punishment that are illegal in Canada).


All of these issues can be complex and require well-intentioned debate in terms of reaching a solution that is acceptable, and the final result is unlikely to be universally agreed upon by all.  These can also lead to difficulties or misinterpretations in dealing with issues of stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and racism.  Fleras and Kunz note that it is not always easy to understand what racism means.  Some aspects of racism are clear – racial slurs, denying housing to families on the basis of skin colour, favouring the hiring of only white people, preaching the superiority of the white race, defacing or bombing a mosque, or physically attacking someone because of their name.  In the United States, racially motivated church arson posed a serious national problem, so the Church Arson Prevention Act was passed by Congress in 1996.  But Fleras and Kunz state that “racism means whatever people want it to mean.  Expressions of racism can be wilful, intentional, or conscious; alternatively, they can be involuntary, inadvertent, or unconscious.” (p. 33). 


B.  Overview of concepts


In order to sort through these concepts, the following provides a quick overview.  Following this, we will examine each of the concepts in more detail.


1.  Ethnocentrism.  (Isajiw, p. 112).  This is a division into an “us” and a “them” with an evaluation of others as inferior in some way.  For Isajiw, this is a form of prejudice, although it may not be associated so much with prejudice as with lack of knowledge of others or an unthinking commitment to what is known or has been experienced.  In some ways, this may not be all that different than the status honour associated with ethnic group or with a pride and identity with one’s own group.  Where it results in downgrading others or regarding one’s own group as superior, it is prejudicial.  Ethnocentrism sometimes translates into xenophobia – fear of strangers or foreigners.


2.  Discrimination.  (Isajiw, pp. 112-115).  This is the exclusion of a group, or members of a group, from situations, experiences, and opportunities where they have a right to be included, and from which they should not be excluded.  As noted above, there are reasonable and desirable grounds for discrimination, but where the exclusion is on the basis of race, ethnicity, language, national origin, or religion, such discrimination is not acceptable and may be illegal.  If the discrimination is personal and intended, and the opportunities are of a public nature (education, jobs, politics), then this can severely restrict members of an ethnic group or the whole group, and lead to there being a minority, subordinate, or disadvantaged group.  Where the discrimination is not intended but still occurs, then it may be institutional or systemic discrimination.  Canadian institutions today generally have a non-discrimination policy and procedures to reduce or end discrimination, but such discrimination still occurs.   Where the institution is not as public (churches, private clubs, peer groups, families), various forms of discrimination may be more widely practiced and may sometimes be difficult to monitor and end.  


3.  Prejudice. (Isajiw, pp. 143-144).  This is a “positive or negative orientation towards groups of people without regard to all the facts.”  This may involve stereotypes – the images or “cognitive components” (Isajiw, p. 144) that are associated with an ethnic or other group.  These are beliefs, values, attitudes, views, thoughts, and judgments about a particular group, associated with incorrect assumptions or information.  Fleras and Elliott define it as

A set of biased and generalized prejudgments about out-groups that are derived from inaccurate and incomplete information.  It represent a dislike of others based on faulty and inflexible generalizations, involving an irrational and unfounded set of assumptions that influence our ability to treat minority groups in an impartial and inequitable manner.  (Fleras and Elliott, 1999, p. 439)

In the glossary, Fleras and Kunz define prejudice as

generalized pre-judgments about others that are derived from incomplete and inflexible information.  It is based on irrational and unfounded assumptions that preclude the ability to treat others as individuals.  From a sociological perspective, prejudice is not a psychological phenomenon but is interpreted as a social construction created by those in positions of power to justigy and entrench the prevailing distribution of resources in society.  (Fleras and Kunz, p. 193)

However, prejudice could also be positive, with a similar unfounded, and overly positive, set of views towards one’s own group. 


Prejudice and discrimination.  (Isajiw, pp. 152-153).  While Isajiw indicates that prejudice can be associated with negative or positive actions toward others, it may be useful to distinguish prejudice, as thought, from discrimination, as action, and recognize them as partially independent phenomena.  In doing this, prejudice is regarded as in the realm of thoughts, biases, views, or attitudes.  That is, prejudice is conceptually distinct from action, although a prejudice may lead to an inequitable or discriminatory action.  In that sense, discrimination involves activities or action, whereas prejudice is in the realm of thought.  As a result of this, it is possible to separate discrimination and prejudice, although in practice they are often connected. 


In conceptual terms, it is possible to discriminate without being prejudiced (systemic, institutional, unthinking, unknowing discrimination); similarly, it is possible to be prejudiced against a group without discriminating against the group (follow non-discriminatory laws and bureaucratic regulations).  This analytical separation may be difficult to imagine, but the distinction can be important in terms of attempting to reduce both discrimination and prejudice – it may be possible to reduce discrimination by using the law and, in turn, this may help in reducing prejudice.  A similar argument can be made about positive prejudice or favouritism.  Those outside a group may view decision-makers who are members of the group as exercising favouritism towards those of their own group (e.g. old boy networks in institutions).  A provision to treat people equally can act to prevent this favouritism.  This is why an institution such as a government department or a university has statements about non-discrimination and equity in its policy statements.


4.  Racism.  (Isajiw, pp. 149-151).  Racism is closely connected with prejudice and, if prejudice is a negative view of those of a particular race or ethnicity, then the two may be identical.  But there are two aspects to racism that distinguish it from prejudice.


a.  Ideology.  Racism is a systematic set of ideas and actions associated with “the idea of the superiority of one racial category or one ethnic group to other racial categories or ethnic groups” (Isajiw, p. 149).  That is, racism is not merely a haphazard negative view that an individual has or expresses about a minority group – the latter might be considered prejudice, although this may be the basis for racism.  Racism is a more systematic set of interconnected ideas that form an overall ideology.  For example, members of a particular race may be regarded as inferior based on views that members of the race are less capable than members of another race.  This may be based on the view, or alleged findings, that the group has an inferior culture or is destined by biology to be inferior. 


b.  Action.  In addition, racism involves some sort of activity or action, whereby those holding to a racist view or ideology are able to put this into practice.  This may involve discrimination in hiring against members of an identifiable minority group attacks on the group (see next section on hate crimes).


Two definitions or racism, both in books co-authored by Fleras, are as follows.  Racism

consists of the power to put these beliefs into practice in a way that denies or excludes those who belong to a devalued category.  The components of racism are often summarized in the popular equation: racism = prejudice + discrimination + power.  (Fleras and Elliott, 1999, p. 440).

Racism is defined as that constellation of ideas and ideals that assert the superiority or assumes the normalcy of one group over another on the basis of biological or cultural characteristics, together with the power to put these racialized beliefs into practice in a way that has the intent or effect of denying or excluding those who are perceived as different or disadvantaged.  (Fleras and Kunz, p. 194).

Chapter 2 of Fleras and Kunz (pp. 32-41) expand further on this, analyzing different types of racism and setting out a conceptual scheme for examining racism in the media.


5.  Hate crimes.  This is an issue that neither text addresses in any detail but has become an important aspect of public discussion, law, and policy in Canada today.  There are different definitions of hate crime in different jurisdications across North America, but crimes such as arson, assault, robbery, homicide, threatening or harassing communications, and disturbing the peace, when motivated by prejudice against a particular group or targeted at these particular individuals or groups, are considered hate crimes.  One definition, from the Toronto and Montreal municipal police is:

A hate crime is a criminal offence committed against a person or property that is based solely upon the victim’s race, religion, nationality, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability.  

See web site http://www.religiousfreedom

In some definitions, intent is taken into account in the sense that the motivation for the criminal act must address one of the above characteristics. 


Hate propaganda.  In addition to hate crimes, for many years Canada has included hate propaganda in the Criminal Code (see  Hate propaganda is “advocating genocide, public incitement or hatred, or the wilful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group” (Silver, 2004, p. 4). This has always been a difficult matter to address in the courts, and some argue that so long as this is just speech or propaganda, even if written, so that it should not be prosecuted, but is a matter of civil liberties. 



Fleras, Augie and Jean Leonard Elliott.  1999.  Unequal Relations: An Introduction to Race, Ethnic and Aboriginal Dynamics in Canada, third edition.  Scarborough, Ontario, Rentice Hall Allyn Bacon Canada.

Helly, Denise. 2004.  “Are Muslims Discriminated Against in Canada Since September 2001?” Canadian Ethnic Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2004.  FC104 C36.

Silver, Warren, Karen Mihorean, and Andrea Taylor-Butts.  2004.  “Hate Crime in Canada,”  Juristat, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics Canada, Ottawa, catalogue number 85-002-XPE, Vol. 24, No. 4.


Last edited November 15, 2004