Discrimination: An equal-opportunity experience?

“Not all discrimination is conscious, intentional or personal. It’s often built into institutional policies and practices such as mortgage lending, zoning or school funding practices – which, in turn, impacts where you live, the quality of education you receive or access to public transportation or good jobs – all of which are linked to health.”

     David R. Williams, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

The presidential election of 2016 left Americans feeling deeply divided.  Ironically, the divisions may spring from a common belief, expressed by members of almost every group, that they aren’t getting a fair chance to realize the American Dream.  Shortly after the election, National Public Radio, Harvard University, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation joined forces to poll people across the country about their beliefs and personal experiences with discrimination.

The result of this collaboration is Discrimination in America, a first-of-its-kind series of reports and webcasts based on responses from nationally representative samples of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, whites, men, women, and LGBTQ adults. One of the key findings was that in all but one group (men), more than half of respondents believed that their group currently experiences discrimination.

From Discrimination in America (2017)

The report went on to examine the extent to which beliefs about discrimination were supported by respondents’ personal experiences.

Institutional and individual discrimination

Regarding personal experiences of institutional discrimination (unfairness related to jobs, pay, promotions, housing, voting, healthcare, and education), for all groups the top two kinds of discrimination occurred in the workplace.

  • 57% of African Americans and 41% of women reported discrimination in pay and promotions.
  • 56% of African Americans and between 27% and 33% of Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and women reported discrimination when applying for jobs.
  • Among Native Americans, discrimination in hiring, promotion, and compensation was twice as likely (54%) for those living in majority-Native areas (typically close to reservations or trust lands) than those in non-majority-Native areas (22%).

The third most common kinds of institutional discrimination differed across groups and included …

  • interacting with police for Blacks (50%) and Native Americans (29%).
  • seeking housing for Asian Americans (25%) and Latinos (31%).
  • applying to or while attending college for white Americans (11%).

Across all groups, African Americans were the most likely to say they had personally experienced discrimination when seeking equal pay and consideration for promotions (57%), applying for jobs (56%), interacting with police (50%), seeking housing (45%), and going to a doctor or health clinic (32%).  African Americans were also most likely to report that they or a family member had been unfairly stopped or treated by police (60%) and treated unfairly by the courts (45%).

The most common kind of individual discrimination (defined as “slurs, insensitive or offensive comments, fear, sexual harassment, and threats or non-sexual harassment”) was slurs about identity, which was reported by more than half of LGBTQ individuals and African Americans.  In addition,

  • More than 1 in 3 women said they or a family member had personally experienced sexual harassment because they were women, including 65% of LGBTQ women and 61% of Native American women.
  • More than half of LGBTQ respondents and more than a third of African Americans said they or a family member had personally experienced violence or threats or non-sexual harassment because of their LGBTQ identity or race.

Paradoxically, advanced education and increased income did NOT appear to shield people from individual discrimination, as those at higher education and income levels were more likely than others to report this kind of discrimination.

What about “majority discrimination”?

Although most white respondents believed that discrimination against whites exists in America, whites were the least likely to have personally experienced discrimination on the basis of race.  What might account, then, for white respondents’ common belief in discrimination against their group?

Psychology may offer an answer. From the time we’re babies, we don’t like to give up something we already have – as infants, a toy; as adults, wealth, health, and privilege. Psychologists have dubbed this phenomenon “loss aversion,” and recent research has found neurological correlates to the mere contemplation of a loss.

Starting with the right to vote, white male privilege has been the bedrock of American civilization (in 1789, most states limited voting rights to white males who owned property or paid taxes). As members of our increasingly diverse population have succeeded in educational, occupational, and civic endeavors that were once the exclusive province of white males, loss aversion may partially explain this group’s beliefs about discrimination.

Invisible discrimination

In her book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, data scientist Cathy O’Neil shows how, unbeknownst to most of us, the widespread use of algorithms by institutions imposes unfair biases on college admissions, job and loan applications, teacher evaluations, policing, and other judgments that often result in “keeping the poor poor and the rich rich.” These algorithms (defined by O’Neil as “opinions embedded in code”) are often proprietary and they reinforce existing inequality via a kind of stealth discrimination that, paired with policies favorable to those already in power, tends to maintain the status quo.

Discrimination close to home

 Policy notwithstanding, King County is not immune to discrimination. According to a 2015 Seattle Times article, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) filed illegal-discrimination complaints against the owners of 13 properties (with more than 2,800 rental units), claiming that prospective tenants were treated differently on the basis of race, national origin, and gender identity. More recently, the September 2018 Aging in Community study of Seattle and King County LGBTQ adults reported “high rates of discrimination and bias in housing” as well as “racial inequities in access to affordable housing and senior services.”  In addition, the 2018/2019 LGBTQ Community Spotlight for King County’s Community Health Needs Assessment reported discrimination – and the fear of discrimination — as barriers to healthcare for LGBTQ youth and young adults.

Hate crimes are a particularly vicious form of individual discrimination, and recent local data reveal a disturbing trend. According to the Seattle Police Department’s bias/hate crime dashboard, reports of malicious harassment, crime with bias elements, and non-criminal bias incidents more than doubled between 2016 and 2018.

What do we mean when we say “liberty and justice for all”?

 From an evolutionary perspective, discrimination might come naturally – as simple as differentiating “other” from “self” – while fairness may require a more advanced, and more challenging, cultural adaptation.  Discrimination in America found that most Americans believe members of their own group(s) are treated unfairly, and many have personally experienced discrimination.

Public school children pledging allegiance to the flag in 1942, shortly after the U.S. President signed the executive order that incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Dorothea Lange image, Library of Congress.

But do we have a common definition of fairness? Is it fair, for example, that banking and real estate practices prevented generations of families from accumulating wealth and creating a buffer against hard times? Is it fair that, to make up for historical discrimination, a job applicant from one group could be passed over in favor of an equally qualified applicant from another group? These are difficult questions, with no easy answers. While not prescriptive, Discrimination in America is a call to action. How we respond can influence our daily lives, set a course toward a fairer society, and reaffirm the definition of the American Dream as “a dream of equality, justice, and democracy for the nation.”


Discrimination in King County:  From 1999 through 2011, Communities Count asked King County adults if they had “experienced discrimination, been prevented from doing something, or been hassled or made to feel inferior” during the past year (results from 1999, 2001, 2004, 2007, and 2011).

Hate crimes in King County:  In 2012, Communities Count reported a significant decline in King County hate crimes, from 1995 to 2011 as well as an annual statewide decline in hate crimes of about 4%.  Communities Count will post new data on hate crimes in its public safety section.

Sexual violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women in Seattle is described in Our Bodies, Our Stories, published by the Urban Indian Health Institute.

Seattle Police Department provides information on reporting hate and bias crimes (also known as “malicious harassment”), as well as a bias/hate crime dashboard, which shows criminal and non-criminal bias-based incidents reported to the Seattle Police Department.

King County Civil Rights Program handles discrimination complaints for King County government and for employers, housing providers, and businesses in UNINCORPORATED KING COUNTY (areas outside King County cities).

Seattle Office for Civil Rights “enforces Seattle’s civil rights laws which include protections against discrimination in employment, public places, housing, and contracting.” To expand beyond a complaint-based system to address discrimination in housing and employment, SOCR created an in-house civil rights testing program in 2017.

Washington State Human Rights Commission is responsible for enforcing Washington law against discrimination.  The website offers detailed information about information about hate and bias crimes in housing.

King County’s Equity and Social Justice Office works to support pro-equity policies, practices, and systems that proactively address root causes of inequality and lead to positive outcomes for individuals, families, and communities.


Tracing the roots of difference: A blog series

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In addressing questions about equity, analysts often present results that differ significantly by race or gender or sexual orientation.  But however dramatic the differences – even for life-and-death indicators like life expectancy and infant mortality – they rarely explore the contexts in which disparities occur.

The contexts, of course, are broad; and they differ, at least somewhat, for every group.  Events that occurred decades or even centuries ago (such as the horrors of slavery – experienced by both African American and Native American populations – or the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families for assimilation to white European culture) can be crucially relevant to health, wealth, and overall wellbeing among people today. Just as the effects of traumatic experiences can pass from generation to generation, the effects of historically racist policies (unfair lending and hiring practices, restrictive real estate covenants, unequal access to GI Bill benefits, unequal access to quality education) have impaired the ability of multiple generations to acquire wealth and build a buffer against hard times.

This is the first in a series of EQUITY BLOGS that looks at the root causes – historical and contemporary – of longstanding disparities in the health and wellbeing of King County residents. The blogs will investigate the notion, supported by many public health leaders, that “health is a function of social inequality.” They will also describe biological mechanisms that have been proposed to mediate the close relationship between social inequality and health outcomes.

Over the next few months, blogs will explore the following topics:

  • Discrimination: An equal opportunity experience? Results of the national Discrimination in America survey.
  • Historical trauma: What is it? Why is it important now? The lasting effects of major, sanctioned oppressions that deny or ignore a group’s humanity.
  • Intersectionality in action. Effects of trauma can be compounded by intersecting identities. Illustrated with recent data from King County communities.
  • Economic policy maintains the hierarchy. How policy has been shaped to preserve power, with enduring impacts.
  • Housing policies and practices in King County. How past and present housing policies influence opportunities for residents of King County.
  • Unequal education. A look at differences in educational opportunity and the differential benefits of education.
  • Unequal justice under the law. How do we explain growing disparities in our justice system? What are we doing about it?
  • Where is environmental justice? Introducing a mapping tool to see where demography intersects with pollution and how that relates to health in King County.
  • The R word: Racism. What does it mean? Why are we so hesitant to use it? A look at changing norms and attitudes.
  • The high cost of “making it.” The stresses of having to be 10 times as good to succeed, often in a hostile environment, are reflected in a host of health outcomes.
  • Birth outcome disparities, part II. Biological explanations of persistent disparities in infant and maternal mortality. “We carry our histories in our bodies. How would we not?” (Nancy Krieger)
  • Disparities tool debuts on Communities Count. Introduction to an interactive tool that highlights disparities – and patterns of disparities – across a range of indicators.
  • Equity sources. An organized, evolving list of curated sources – national and regional – related to the above blog topics will be available on the Data Resources page.

In addition to helping us understand disparities in local data, blogs in the series are meant to show how tightly our history weaves itself into our lives and our children’s futures. In looking at trauma, we acknowledge the rich variability of responses within and across groups and generations, from strength and resilience to ongoing harm embedded in policy and culture. Our goal is not to exacerbate existing divisions, but to reaffirm the shared values, identified by King County residents, that guide the work of Communities Count.  Whenever possible, the blogs focus on the lives of King County residents, calling out local heroes as well as promising regional programs and practices.


Data sources about King County communities include …

  • Communities Count offers interactive charts and maps on indicators across the following topics: education, family & community support, food, health, housing & transportation, income, population, and public safety.
  • Community Health Indicators: For 168 health and determinants-of-health indicators offers interactive charts and maps showing trends and demographics; data for King County regions, cities, and some neighborhoods.
  • City Health Profiles provides demographic and health data for 26 cities / geographic areas in King County.