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date: 03 December 2022



  • Kendra P. DeLoach McCutcheonKendra P. DeLoach McCutcheonSyracuse University


Social workers have a responsibility to challenge discrimination and promote social and economic justice. To fulfill this responsibility, it must be understood how discrimination exists and the detrimental affect it has on both the psychosocial functioning and well-being of individuals who are marginalized, disenfranchised, and disempowered (targeted groups) and individuals who have privilege, resources, and power (advantaged groups).


  • Human Behavior
  • Macro Practice
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
  • Social Justice and Human Rights

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.


According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social workers should act to eliminate and prevent discrimination of individuals, groups, and/or communities based on “race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical disability” (Code sections 4.02 & 6.04). Historically, the social work profession (“the profession”) has opposed discrimination and charged its membership to challenge it as presented in the NASW Code of Ethics (NASW, 2018), the International Declaration of Ethical Principles of Social Work of the International Federation of Social Workers (2018), and the Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education (2015). The profession has accepted this charge as evidenced in indirect approaches of community organizing, policy planning, advocacy, activism, research, and education.

Overview of Discrimination

Discrimination is defined as the outward behavioral response by a group that receives advantages and power (advantaged group), that is unfavorable or negative toward a group that lacks power and privilege (targeted group; Lum, 2004). Prejudice, the predecessor of discrimination, is the act of thinking one group is better than or holds greater value than another. Discrimination is an act or actions, intentional or unintentional, that devalues, humiliates, or negates the rights to access information, opportunities, and/or resources of individuals or targeted groups. Discrimination grants greater access to opportunities and preferential treatment to advantaged groups while limiting or denying opportunities and mistreating targeted groups. The number of targeted groups to which individuals belong increases the frequency and possibly intensity of discrimination (Hardiman & Jackson, 2007). For example, a Black transgender woman who is hearing impaired belongs to multiple targeted groups, subjecting her to different forms of discrimination. Discrimination may present as overt (i.e., explicit and exposed) or covert (i.e., implicit and concealed). Overt discrimination is easily identified and legally challenged because of the direct communication of threat and/or physical violence (Major et al., 2003). Legislation has been enacted against overt forms of discrimination in employment, housing, and finances to name a few. Unfortunately, legislation is less effective in guarding against covert forms of discrimination because of its clandestine nature (Beratan, 2006). Overt forms of discrimination produce visual artifacts or oral declarations (e.g., schools failing to mainstream students with disabilities; “Whites Only” signs; or refusing to promote a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or a Black man wearing twists or locs, also known pejoratively as dreadlocks. Covert discrimination triggers feelings of doubt and uncertainty because of the lack of explicit and tangential proof. A qualified woman being passed over for a job promotion may be uncertain if her gender played a role, but a history of qualified women being passed over strengthens the argument of the salience of gender discrimination.

Legacy of Discrimination

Discrimination occurs when prejudices and stereotypes based on class, age, ability status, employment, gender, discrimination, national origin, race/ethnicity, color, religion, and sex influence decision making (Quiros & Dawson, 2013). The perpetuation of these acts, intentional or unintentional, ensures the legacy of discrimination continues and is inescapable for even conscientious individuals. The legacy of discrimination is long-standing and keeps society from functioning optimally. Discrimination has negative affects not only on targeted groups but also on advantaged groups. When candidates of color, women, people with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, curious, pansexual, asexual, two-spirited (LGBTQ+) individuals are passed over for jobs, promotions, or leadership opportunities because of discriminatory thoughts and actions, advantaged groups do not receive the knowledge and experiences stemming from these groups. Discrimination prevents targeted groups from serving in decision-making roles or participating in discussions where their thoughts and leadership skills are considered and acted upon (Mueller et al., 2008). The diverse experiences from both advantaged and targeted group members shape, promote, and enrich business strategies, projects, events, and other work-related tasks in a positive and different way.

Biopsychosocial Effects of Discrimination

Discrimination has been found to be damaging to an individual’s biopsychosocial functioning and found to be a significant stressor associated with physical and psychological distress (King, 2005). As an environmental stressor, discrimination has been found to increase negative arousal and interpersonal conflicts. In particular, racial discrimination has been found to place adolescents at risk of psychological distress, externalizing behavioral problems, and poor academic outcomes (Riina & McHale, 2012). Stress related to racism was associated with higher infant mortality rates among native-born Black mothers as compared to nonnative-born Black mothers (Rosenberg et al., 2002). Consequently, the compounding effects of racial discrimination coupled with challenges in the environment adversely affect human biology and development, proximally damaging infant births and distally damaging future family formation. Discrimination has been strongly related to depression among Blacks and Puerto Ricans (Benjamins, 2013). Covert discrimination was found to increase feelings of distress among immigrant Korean families in Canada because of attributional ambiguity in accurately appraising mistreatment based on an attack on their personal characteristics or identity (i.e., prejudice) or of their ethnic group membership (i.e., discrimination; Noh et al., 2007). Cognitive appraisal completely mediated depressive symptoms and covert discrimination. Feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, frustration, and intimidation contribute to attributional ambiguity.

Common Forms of Discrimination

Common forms of discrimination are related to age, ability, employment, gender, housing, nationality, race/ethnicity, and religion.

Age Discrimination

Age discrimination is the unfair treatment of individuals based on their age and is a common practice within the workplace (Dennis & Thomas, 2007). Age discrimination occurs when animus, such as stereotypes, prejudices, and differential treatment, occurs based on characteristics related to age and nothing else. Age discrimination may manifest when one is not hired, fired as a cost-reduction strategy, laid off, or offered early retirement because of age. In the 1960s, the U.S. Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) to prohibit age discrimination in workplaces; the Equal Pay Act to prohibit wage disparity against women; and the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination against Blacks, Indigenous people, people of color (BIPOC), and women (see EEOC, n.d. -d).

Disability Discrimination

Disability discrimination, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, targets individuals who have a mental or physical impairment that limits activities of daily living, have a record of such impairments, and are regarded as having impairments even in the absence of an actual disability. Resulting from an individual’s disability, assistance and accommodations may be warranted and guaranteed within reason. Reasonable accommodations constitute physical changes to the environment, aid to the person with the disability, restructuring activities, providing qualified interpreters or readers to the individual, permitting more time for the completion of tasks or assignments, or purchasing and installing equipment that would help with performance. The intent of offering the reasonable accommodation is to create an environment in which the individual with the disability can perform to a similar, if not the same, level of performance as a person without a disability. In the United Kingdom, section 6 of the Equality Act (2010) makes it unlawful to discriminate based on short- or long-term physical or mental impairment of activities of daily living.

Employment Discrimination

Within the subtext of employment discrimination, wage discrimination can be defined as pay arbitrarily assigned to an employee unrelated to work performance or merit (Coleman, 2003). Two acts barring wage discrimination have been enacted, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Pay Act outlawed the use of gender as the basis for discriminating in the wages of employees. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was more comprehensive in outlawing the use of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin in wage discrimination (Kennedy et al., 2008). Title VII prohibits retaliation against individuals who oppose discriminatory employment practices, filees a discrimination charge, testify or participate in an investigation; or proceeds with litigation. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act forbids discrimination in employment (e.g., hiring, firing, layoffs, or any other term or condition of employment) based on pregnancy.

Gender Discrimination

Gender discrimination occurs in many contexts of women’s lives, such as family, work, religious institutions, and educational institutions. In Canada and the United States, women report feeling discriminated against by trusted parties (e.g., intimate partners, family members, and people in their social network) because of their gender (Foster, 2009). The effects of gender discrimination are long-standing and can become instilled unconsciously into the collective global consciousness through traditional gender roles of women and men, mainly relegating women to a substandard or lesser status. Improving conditions for women must entail understanding how gender discrimination contributes to poor career outcomes for women. A Nigerian study identified causes of gender inequality in academia and the implications on academic development of women academicians. Ogbogu (2011) found that academic recruitment strategies were biased against women and academic acceptance was motivated by merit. However, traditional gender roles and nuclear and extended family responsibilities influenced women to embrace low career aspirations because of the conflict between work and caregiving responsibilities, which prevented women from working toward greater academic gains and higher academic positions.

Housing Discrimination

Housing discrimination occurs when targeted groups are not allowed to purchase, rent, or remain in a dwelling because of restrictions imposed by a landlord. It also entails outright refusals by landlords; denial of availability of a dwelling, different terms or standards, or unwarranted termination based on discriminatory reasons; lack of repairs for certain tenants based on discriminatory reasons; creation of a sexually hostile environment; lack of reasonable accommodations for disabled persons; and failure to stop another tenant from making harassing, threatening, or discriminatory comments to a person in a protected category. Housing discrimination may occur through political and structural forces, such as red lining, municipal ordinances, private deed restrictions, and racial violence. The recent subprime loan crisis made obtaining housing unattainable for many families of color (Mendenhall, 2010). Housing discrimination is illegal and prohibited by the federal Fair Housing Act in the United States. The act applies to anyone who deals with tenants and prospective tenants, including landlords, property managers, property owners, and real estate agents. Persons who deal with tenants and prospective tenants may be liable for employee civil rights violations, regardless of whether they were the ones who willfully discriminated against the tenants or prospective tenants. As espoused by Mendenhall (2010),

during various periods of history and under different stages of capitalism, the U.S. government, business organizations, the residential finance industry, neighborhood organizations, and individuals have engaged in covert and overt practices to actively create racially segregated, inferior, and higher-cost housing. (p. 20)

Housing discrimination is created through structural practices that involve a barrage of complex factors operating on both racial and class lines. The quality of resources received for obtaining housing often varies based on many demographical descriptors, including race, gender, income, credit, and knowledge. In European countries, such as Spain, have cities that have experienced high rates of immigration and a growing trend of housing discrimination. In 2007, the Catalan Right to Housing Act constituted the premier, most comprehensive European law against housing discrimination, including provisions defining direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and positive legal action (Ponce, 2010). This European law could serve as a model for the U.S. legal system, setting an example for other forms of antidiscrimination legislation and policies.

National Origin Discrimination

National origin discrimination is the exclusion, lack of opportunity, and/or denial of resources based on one’s national origin, ancestry, culture, and/or linguistic characteristics related to a specific ethnic group or accent. As defined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful for employers with 15 or more employees to discriminate based on national origin. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces this federal prohibition by making it unlawful to discriminate against spouses of individuals born outside of the United States or individuals associated with persons of a different national group. In the United Kingdom, the Equality Act (2010) protects against discrimination based on color, nationality, ethnic origin, and national origin.

Racial Discrimination

Racial discrimination is an outward behavioral response that is negative toward a racial out-group based on ethnic and phenotypic features of its members (Lum, 2004). After a series of African Americans were murdered by police or injured while in police custody, a Black Lives Matter hashtag emerged on social media. This hashtag grew into several grassroots organizations formed to fight against racial discrimination and police brutality. In 2020, after a video displayed Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 26 seconds, mass civil protests and demonstrations across the United States and other countries erupted to fight against police brutality and racially motivated violence against Black and Brown people. Racial discrimination is also prevalent in the way the media covers news stories, often attributing crime to BIPOC. Although in the U.S. White Americans commit 59% of violent crimes (Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], 2019), media coverage does not emphasize their racial identity as it does when BIPOC commit crimes (Chuang, 2012). On March 16, 2021, Robert Aaron Young, a 21-year-old European American male, killed eight people of whom six were of Asian descent in Atlanta, Georgia. On April 15, 2021, Brandon Hole, a 19-year-old European American male, killed nine people and injured several others, most of whom were Sikhs, in an Indianapolis FedEx store. On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a 27-year-old European American male, killed nine African Americans at the end of a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In all of these examples, news media coverage neither emphasized their racial identity nor focused on the gravity of crimes White men commit. However, on April 18, 2013, news coverage of brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 20 and 26 years old, respectively, who detonated a bomb at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and wounded 289 others, referred to them as terrorists and emphasized their Chechen-Kyrgyzstani ethnic descent. In 2007, media coverage of Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old Asian American male who killed 32 people and injured 17 others at Virginia Tech University overemphasized his foreign ethnic identity, despite his permanent residency status in the United States since he was 8 years old (Song, 2008). In 2009, media coverage of Jiverly Wong, a 41-year-old Asian American male who committed a mass killing of 13 people, injuring 4 others at an immigrant services center in Binghamton, New York, overemphasized his birthplace and ethnic identity despite being a naturalized U.S. citizen since 1995 (Chuang, 2012). Despite both Cho and Wong having lived in the United States for more than 15 and 21 years, respectively, media coverage failed to view them as American or, in Wong’s case, as legal. Media coverage conflated Cho and Wong’s ethnicity with foreignness, race, and violent acts, shifting the burden of crime to BIPOC and reinforcing violent stereotypes against BIPOC. The overemphasis of foreign ethnic identity as violent, but not Whiteness, illustrates covert discrimination.

Religious Discrimination

Religious discrimination is unfair treatment of an individual based on their religious beliefs or involvement or affiliation with an individual who is associated with a particular religion or associated with a religious organization or group (EEOC, n.d. -c). Members belonging to marginalized religious groups are excluded from partaking fully in activities or in the opportunities afforded to members of mainstream religious groups (Adams, 2007). Because religion crosses other dimensions, such as age, race, gender, ability, and sexual identity, it is hard to disentangle it from other social identities that may be affected by discrimination. For example, an Iranian American woman who is Muslim shares several social identities that may be affected by discrimination based on her nation-of-origin identity, gender identity, and Muslim identity. If she encounters covert discrimination because of her religion, it may be difficult to separate it from her other social identities. An integrative approach to understanding how all of her social identities could be targeted for discrimination may assist in understanding the complexity of discrimination and the justification used to discriminate.

Sexual Identity Discrimination

Sexual identity discrimination is based on the lack of advantage and privilege afforded to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, questioning, asexual, intersexual, pansexual, gender non-binary, curious, and 2 spirit (LGBT+) (Griffin et al., 2007). Members belonging to the aforementioned groups are prejudged based on their expressions of gender nonconforming and non-heteronormative identities. For example, male figure skaters, gymnasts, and dancers may be identified by derogatory names because of their diverging expression of masculinity from a heteronormative aesthetic, despite their level of fitness, body strength, skills, training, and competitiveness (Gregory, 2011). Discrimination against LGBT+ individuals are still widely accepted, as evidenced by the juxtaposition between policies that purport intolerance and enforcement of those policies once a violation occurs. According to Gregory (2011), when discrimination against LGBT+ individuals occurs in businesses, most employees (a) engage in using derogatory language, (b) support the use of derogatory language, (c) remain silent and complicit when hearing derogatory language, or (d) if opposed, fail to take corrective action against derogatory language against this group. In the United Kingdom, the Equality Act affords protections of protected characteristics, which includes sexual orientation and gender reassignment. In the United States, on June 15, 2020, LGBTQ+ employees gained protection when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protected LGBTQ+ employees from being fired based on sex.

Public Policy and Legislation

Age Discrimination

Since the 1960s, legislation in the United States has prohibited age discrimination through such acts as the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (Nuemark, 2003). Although much attention has been spent debating other acts, including the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act, which prohibit discrimination against women and BIPOC, age discrimination is beginning to receive more attention given the increase in the aging population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s (2012) “middle series” projections, by 2030 the U.S. population aged 65 and older will increase from 13 to 20%. The rising growth in the aging population in the United States will increase the social costs of any aging discrimination legislation on older adult workers or highlight any cost caused by age discrimination legislation.

In the United Kingdom, the aging population of individuals 50 and over continues to steadily increase because of declining fertility and mortality rates. Since the 1950s the number of older workers has steadily declined in the U.K. labor market and an exodus of older adults from the labor market has ensued because of closing industries, lay-offs of older workers, and early retirement packages offered to older workers nearing retirement age. The U.K. Job Release Scheme (1977) aimed to remove older workers from the labor market by incentivizing employers to retire older workers and replace them with unemployed younger workers (Walker, 1985). Through the abolition of the earning rule in 1989, the U.K. government attempted to eliminate a prior discriminatory policy that penalized older workers who worked past the state pension age. In 1993, Training for Work, the main government training program for long-term unemployed individuals, increased the age limit for access to the program from 49 to 63. Despite the increase in age limit, the administration priority is geared toward 18- to 24-year-olds. Additionally, enrollment bonuses may not be given to training providers for enrolling older workers as compared to other disadvantaged groups. According to the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act of 1978, older workers who reach the “normal” age of retirement receive no legal protection if they are unfairly dismissed from work (Industrial Relations Services, 1993).

Unlike the United Kingdom, the U.S. Congress passed a series of bills banning age discrimination in the workplace. The ADEA prohibited age discrimination and protected individuals aged 40–65 years old (EEOC, n.d. -a). In 1975, the Age Discrimination Act prohibited age discrimination in all programs or activities that received federal assistance, including state or local governments. In 1978 the ADEA amendments extended the protective age range from 40 to 70 years, by default raising the mandatory retirement age to 70 years old. In 1986, another ADEA amendment removed upper-age limitations, banning mandatory retirement with limited exclusions. In 1990, the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act regulated financial inducements to retirees, protecting older workers from differential treatment based on age by employers who express prejudices and stereotypes about aging that are unrelated to work productivity or costs.

Disability Discrimination

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 ensures that government and private sectors coordinate effort to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities so they may fully participate in society (Rothstein, 2000). The act is divided into three titles: Title I prohibits employment discrimination of people with disabilities related to job application procedures, hiring, advancement, dismissal, employee compensation, job training, and other job-related conditions (42 U.S.C. §§ 12111–12117, 1994); Title II prohibits discrimination of people with disabilities from being excluded from, or denied benefits of, services, programs, or activities of a public entity (42 U.S.C. §§ 12131–12165, 1994); and Title III prohibits discrimination in access to public goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations (42 U.S.C. §§ 12181–12189, 1994). The definition of disability is not presented in the three titles. However, Section 12102(2) defines disability as “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.” This act attempts to protect people with disabilities from being excluded from full participation in employment and in other public spaces and entities.

In the United Kingdom, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) of 1995 aimed to end employment discrimination against people with disabilities (Konur, 2002). In addition to this act, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) of 2001 and the Disability Discrimination (Amendment) Bill of 2002 have prompted public discussion regarding the effectiveness of the DDA in protecting people with disabilities. One point of contention with the DDA was the exclusion of educational institutions from its coverage, although those institutions were responsible for publishing disability statements. The lack of governmental protection regarding protection and inclusion of people with disabilities in educational institutions prompted the enactment of SENDA, which placed education within DDA coverage (Konur, 2001). Despite the initiatives to create comprehensive coverage for people with disabilities, people with mental illness are relatively ignored. Public rhetoric demonstrates existing stigma associated with mental illness, thus skepticism and denial of discrimination against these individuals continues.

Employment Discrimination

In the United States, the EEOC enforces the Equal Opportunity Employment Act of 1972, a federal law amending Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, applies to establishments with 15 or more employees. Title VII protects against employment discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, or religion. As a caveat of the Civil Rights Act, individuals are protected from discrimination with regard to recruitment, hiring, advancement, compensation, job training, termination, and other work-related terms and/or conditions. Title VII makes it illegal for employers to use race, national origin, sex, or religion to refuse hiring, discipline, terminate, deny training, fail to promote, pay less, demote, harass, or creating a hostile work environment. Under this policy, employees are also free from retaliation, segregation, or isolation from other employees. Title VII provides freedom for individuals to marry or associate with individuals of different races; become members of ethnic-based organizations and/or groups; and attend or participate in faith-based organizations, worship ceremonies, or cultural practices, as long as there is no interference in the ability of one to perform their job duties. Outside of the United States, applying U.S. employment discrimination laws to international employers creates a significant challenge as multinational businesses continue to form and expand (Posthuma et al., 2006). Applying discrimination laws to international employers involves multiple sources of legal authority, which may include U.S. statutes, international treaties, and laws of the host country.

Gender Discrimination

This form of discrimination occurs on the basis and expression of gender identity, perceived or actual. It has been argued that gender discrimination and sexism are different conceptually, but within the American legal system the term “sexism” has been legally interpreted to be the same. Thus, Title VII of the U.S. Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA; H.R. 1755/S.815; Human Rights Campaign, 2013) protects against sexism, but does not protect against gender nonconformity. Individuals who are gender-nonconforming do not receive the same protections as their gender-conforming counterparts. One of the more pressing battles of gender discrimination that has been long fought has been obtaining the right for women to participate in politics through the basic right of voting. Women’s suffrage, which is the pursuit of women having the right to vote and seek electoral office is the first step toward women’s full participation in democracy. The right to vote was first granted to adult women in New Zealand in 1893 (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2013); in South Australia by a British colony in 1894 (Government of South Australia, 2001); in Southern Rhodesia (known today as Zimbabwe) for restricted suffrage for White women in 1919, full suffrage for White women in 1957, and for all Blacks in 1980 (Heads of State of Zimbabwe, 2006); in the United States in 1920 (Mann, 2014); in Greece in 1952 (Sianou, 2000); in Switzerland in 1971 (Smith, 2008); in Liechtenstein in 1984 (“Around the World,” 1984); and in the United Arab Emirates (limitedly for women and men) in 2006 (Pichon, 2013). Despite this progress, there are countries where women still do not have the right to vote.

Because of the bias against women and individuals expressing gender nonconformity, gender discrimination can be found in a variety of social, political, and cultural institutions (e.g., child marriages that still occur in Southeast Asian and African countries). Gender discrimination manifests in religious institutions where women must wear coverings and modest attire, and any resistance by women could subject them to violence by religious police. It manifests in cultural practices that force genital mutilation on girls who have no way of refusing or facilitate sexual slavery against girls and women. It manifests in political practices that enact lenient laws that fail to adequately punish perpetrators of sexual assault, human trafficking, and/or violent crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals (Manjoo, 2011). All of these practices are unlawful, but many are unreported or underreported, and when they are reported perpetrators may either receive lenient sentencing (e.g., Brock Turner, a 19-year-old Stanford University student sentenced to serve 6 months in jail for raping an unconscious woman; he was released after 3 months) or none at all.

Housing Discrimination

As evidenced in Chicago, red lining is a discriminatory practice that restricts certain people from residing in neighborhoods. The bulk of BIPOC today in Chicago still reside in South Chicago. Their residence in this area directly relates to real estate agents deciding which part of the city of which they wanted to restrict BIPOC , specifically Black people to live. A map of the city was posted and red tape was physically placed on the wall. Real estate agents were instructed to show houses only within the boundaries of the red tape when the potential buyer of the home was Black. The first known record of this practice dates back to the 1950s. Despite the changes in the topography of the housing market in Chicago 70 years later, Black residents still predominate in the area. The practice of red lining demonstrates the duration and extent of discriminatory practices within a community even after the practice has been abandoned.

In 2000, Delta Funding Corporation, a subprime mortgage lender, agreed to pay remediation of approximately $7 million because it practiced racially motivated, instead of risk-based, lending practices toward Black women. Black women, regardless of income and credit scores, were found to have received, among all racial groups, the highest levels of subprime loans and to have paid higher fees (Fishbein & Woodall, 2006).

In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) reduced the financial cost of down payments and the number of monthly mortgage payments, and provided lower interest rates for long-term mortgages and mortgage repayment assistance. In 1933, the creation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) assisted families in reclaiming their homes lost to foreclosures. Unfortunately, but similar to other policies, African Americans were prevented from obtaining access to these policy benefits. For 2 years in the late 1940s, the FHA discriminated through racial covenants presented as neighborhood stability protections. It provided a racial model of discriminatory financial policies through the HOLC (Mendenhall, 2010). This model served as a framework for future government, banking, and real estate institutions to either alleviate housing crises for White families or promote discrimination against BIPOC families. In the 2000s, European countries experienced a wave of immigration, which correlated with a growing trend of housing discrimination in Spain. Consequently, the legal system enacted legal protections against housing discrimination under European, Spanish, and Catalan law. In 2007, the Catalan Right to Housing Act constituted the premier, most comprehensive European law against housing discrimination. The act included provisions defining direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and positive legal action (Ponce, 2010). This European law could serve as a global model for enacting antidiscrimination legislation.

National Origin

This form of discrimination is based on unfavorable treatment of people from a particular country, including unfavorable treatment attributed to their ethnicity, accent, or dress attire. It also includes unfavorably treating individuals married to, involved with, or associated with individuals who are from a particular country and whose ethnicity, accent, and dress attire reflect that fact. In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination related to employers refusing to hire, promote, fire, pay, train, refuse fringe benefits, or assign jobs to individuals because they are from a particular country (EEOC, n.d. -d).

Additionally, in the United States, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate, in terms of hiring, promoting, firing, paying, training, providing fringe benefits, or assigning jobs, based upon an individual’s immigration or citizenship status (EEOC, n.d. -d). If an individual has legal documents to establish employment eligibility, then an employer must accept the appropriate documentation and follow employment procedures in accordance with the law. Exceptions are made for cases in which additional legal documents are needed or in cases where national security may be threatened. However, in those cases, employers are expected to inform the individual of the additional documentation and direct them to the appropriate agencies.

Racial Discrimination

Discrimination based on immutable characteristics associated with race, color, hair texture, or certain facial features or based on a condition that predominately affects members of a specific race violates Title VII unless it is work-related and necessary for job performance. For example, requiring cashiers to remove any form of hair covering may be offensive to Muslim women and East Asian Christian women who cover their hair because uncovered hair is not a work-related task or necessary for job completion. Another example is an employer creating a “no facial hair” policy, which may discriminate against African American men who are predisposed to pseudofolliculitis barbae, a condition that produces severe and painful shaving bumps from ingrown hairs that may become infected if left untreated. If the policy is work-related and necessary to carry out job duties, it does not violate Title VII.

Religious Discrimination

The First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution protect the religious freedoms of individuals against government infringement but not against private infringement (Edwards & Kaplan, 1971). In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also deems religious discrimination as an unlawful employment practice; hence, it bolsters the belief that religious freedom is a fundamental right in the United States. The act prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment (EEOC, n.d. -c). Furthermore, the act requires employers to reasonably accommodate religious practices of employees or prospective employees, except when the accommodation would create undue hardships for the employer.

Reasonable religious accommodations are any adjustments to work environments that allow employees to practice their religion: flexible work schedules, voluntary substitutions to honor religious holidays/events, job reassignments, or lateral job transfers. Other protections afforded by the act are employer guidelines on scheduling examinations or other selection activities on days not in conflict with employees’ religious needs, on forgoing inquiry regarding applicants’ future availability at certain times related to their religious needs, on forgoing adopting/maintaining a restrictive dress code targeting employees’ religious practices, and on refusing permission to employees to observe a religious holiday or time-specific practice. Nevertheless, employers are protected from these guidelines if they can demonstrate that upholding them would cause undue hardships (EEOC, n.d. -c). Undue hardships include increased administrative costs, diminished efficiency in work productivity, infringements on the job rights and benefits of other employees, impairments in work safety, unfair distribution of workload imposed on other coworkers, conflicts with other laws and regulations, and/or violations on the terms, conditions, or rights of a collective bargaining agreement or seniority system. Additionally, employees whose religious practices forbid them from paying union dues to a labor organization cannot be required to pay, but they may pay an equal amount to a charitable organization.

In Europe, religious discrimination is forbidden by several laws, including the antidiscrimination directive under Article 13 of the European Community Treaty, the Human Rights Act of 1998, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Hepple & Choudhury, 2001). However, in 2004 France passed a law banning headscarves, mainly worn by Muslim women (Shah, 2006), which left them unprotected. The passing of this law is oppositional to the bills of rights that, to an extent, substantiates religious freedom. Although France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have passed these bills, only the United Kingdom has adopted the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 1953.

Sexual Identity Discrimination

In the United States, LGBT+ group members have been slow to receive legal protections and constitutional rights and guarantees. This is mainly due to opposition from conservative religious and political groups that deem LGBT+ members as lacking appropriate morals (Rostosky et al., 2010). Despite the opposition from religious and political groups, LGBT+ individuals and their allies have advocated for the constitutional right to marry. In June 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples could marry with all rights and responsibilities granted by the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In the United Kingdom, progressive policies have been passed providing legal provisions and regulations protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation (Aspinall & Mitton, 2008). Furthermore, same-sex couples have received rights similar to their heterosexual counterparts. The United Kingdom has enacted equality legislation and equality governance, with sexual orientation serving as the basis for this movement. Despite the efforts made to promote equal opportunities among this population, policies and regulations are futile if compliance is lacking. Governmental departments and organizations must develop strategies to monitor compliance and implement evidence-based practices (Aspinall & Mitton, 2008).

Implications for Social Work Practice

The profession has been charged to work against discrimination, but it has at times supported discriminatory policies and practices. The profession has been criticized for promoting White middle-class ideals, failing to respond to the racial, gender, and sexual revolutions of the 1960s, and overall serving as a handmaiden to the status quo (Abramovitz, 1998). Early social workers situated societal-levels problems within the individual as morality, family composition, or family dynamic problems (Abramovitz, 1998). Social workers exacted retribution or denied services if families (mainly low-income, minority, or immigrant families) upheld attitudes or behaviors different from the social workers. To address these earlier failings, the profession adopted values emphasizing diversity and difference, individual worth and dignity, and social justice.

The NASW Code of Ethics describes appropriate behaviors regarding practice and research that specifically address discrimination. The profession has affirmed ending discrimination as one of its responsibilities. Because discrimination is so ingrained in the social fabric of human interaction, especially in Western societies, to distinguish it one must first increase awareness and sensitivity about discriminatory behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and situations. Increasing awareness and sensitivity about discrimination may evoke an array of unpleasant and harsh behaviors, thoughts, and feelings in those who uphold it. Discrimination can be used as a tool to discern one’s value of self from others. Additionally, discrimination serves as a strategy for deciding who gets access to resources, how resources are distributed, and who will assume power in ongoing decision making. As groups compete, discrimination becomes a useful tool for reducing competition from others and maintaining the status quo. It is a quick way to separate out the deserving from the undeserving, the worthy from the unworthy—that is, us from them. It has been so ingrained in Western civilization that it often goes undetected and unchallenged, making discrimination has been inculcated within and perpetrated against targeted group members.

As social workers, we must recognize how discrimination has deleterious effects on targeted groups, individuals, families, and communities. For example, housing discrimination deters or prevents intergenerational accumulation and transference of wealth within families through housing-related investments. Particularly in the United States, owning a home or rental property can serve as an avenue for generating wealth beyond one’s employment salary. Individuals who are unable to own a home miss out on tax credits or relief that returns more of their taxed income into their households. Additionally, being restricted to live in a low-income housing complex or neighborhood may subject an individual to communities with higher crime rates, no accessible parks and recreation facilities, low-quality grocery stores or no grocery stores, neighborhoods without sidewalks, and other negative characteristics that impinge on neighborhood health and wellness.

Social workers have a major interest in understanding the effects of discrimination and implementing strategies to end it. Social activists must critique discriminatory practices, take a confrontational stance of social action, raise awareness, and fight to win decisive battles. Community planners and organizers must engage in community-level change strategies by implementing culturally responsive approaches in ameliorating marginalization and disenfranchisement. In 2020, community organizers and activists in Georgia fought voter suppression by registering close to 1 million people to vote in the presidential and state run-off elections.

Social workers and other social scientists have researched the long-term, damaging biopsychosocial effects of discrimination on behavioral health. We know that dire consequences occur when discrimination is unaddressed, such as poor maternal health and increased infant mortality among Black mothers. Given what is known about the effects of discrimination, what is less understood are macrolevel strategies that extinguish discrimination altogether. Federal policies make it unlawful to discriminate based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin; however, identifying and enforcing its elimination is challenging. Social workers must continue to research and implement strategies to eliminate discrimination to create a just society for everyone.


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