What we are talking about

What is structural discrimination?

The State Services Commission describes structural discrimination as occurring “when an entire network of rules and practices disadvantages less empowered groups while serving at the same time to advantage the dominant group”.

Structural discrimination can be more difficult to identify than individual discrimination because it is built into structures and systems. ‘One size fits all’ policies that claim to treat everyone the same, for example, can in fact privilege the majority they were designed for. The organisations concerned may not even realise that their practices unconsciously carry on disadvantage.

Examples of structural discrimination on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity and national origin include:

  • racial profiling by security and law enforcement agencies
  • support for measures that have a disproportionately negative effect on minority ethnic groups e.g. cutting funding to specific targeted programmes that are shown to improve outcomes for minority groups or implementing one-size-fits-all standards that do not account for different needs and values
  • under- or mis-representation of particular ethnic groups in the media
  • insufficient, patchy or poor-quality data collection on ethnicity
  • medical care and rehabilitation services that fail to account for the different health needs and cultural values of different communities.

Public attitudes

Racial prejudice is a significant barrier to achieving racial equality. While structural discrimination relates to groups and people, this is fed into by the racist and discriminatory attitudes of individuals. Systems are run, after all, by people. Research has shown that modern racism can be subtle. People do not openly slander other racial groups but may talk in prejudicial ways when ‘safe’ to do so. Minority groups may also be criticised for resisting mainstream values and their experience of prejudice denied. All of these strategies help normalise the dominant culture.

Deficit theorising

Deficit theorising is a model that blames minorities for the disadvantages they experience. Ethnic groups may be criticised for ‘not being able to speak English properly’ or ‘not working hard enough’. This approach ignores the structural factors within dominant culture systems that create inequalities.

Socio-economic factors

Poverty continues to be a massive barrier to achieving ethnic equality.  There are too many children who do not get enough to eat and live in overcrowded households where they have no space to read or do homework.  Their education would continue to be compromised even if their schools got rid of all discriminatory policies.

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