With Dignity: Freedom from Discrimination

Not too long ago, a Lawrentian said that America isn’t racist anymore. They pointed toward improvements such as desegregation, intermarriage and a general decrease in racist attitudes toward African Americans.

More recently, a Lawrentian told me they had just learned that women still don’t make as much money as men do in comparable positions.

In both cases, the Lawrentians seemed to view discrimination as a thing of the past. They seemed to think that because the civil rights and feminist movements happened, we are beyond racism and discrimination, even though African Americans and females are not the only groups that have been discriminated against in America.

They also implied an underlying attitude that America is beyond or above discrimination because of what it stands for. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true.

Discrimination in America is alive and well. In fact, it is flourishing. Most days, we don’t even think about it. Why not? Why might these Lawrentians be unaware of the breadth of discrimination today in America?

I could discuss the people perpetuating myths about the American Dream and America’s commitment to principles such as freedom and equality, but I think it’s much simpler than that. The reason we don’t see discrimination in America today is because its face is hidden.

Discrimination is not as obvious as it once was. We no longer relegate African Americans to the back of the bus. We no longer allow the Ku Klux Klan to roam through the streets. But we do allow other, more insidious forms of discrimination to permeate our society. Here are a few examples:

In forming barriers to safe, affordable housing, discrimination segregates entire sections of cities, setting up self-perpetuating cycles of poverty through discrimination in the realms of housing, education and jobs.

Discrimination creates landfills and factories in poor neighborhoods, sickening people who have no voice. It feeds unhealthy food to people who cannot afford healthy food while guaranteeing them a lower quality of health care.

It gives minorities an education that does not educate them not only because they live in neighborhoods with inferior schools, but because the language and methods of instruction offered in American schools often differ from the languages they speak and the methods of instruction used in their cultures.

Discrimination denies qualified workers good jobs, and when it allows them bad ones, it denies them equal pay and job security. It hides the faces of cultural minorities from equal representation in the mainstream media.

It fosters ignorance within history classes that fail to acknowledge differing viewpoints. It prosecutes some groups at higher rates than other groups while obstructing their access to quality legal counsel. The list goes on and on.

These phenomena might not be what we think of when we think about discrimination, yet they are indicative of the most prevalent forms of discrimination in America today. Many do not realize that discrimination exists not only within personal interactions, but also within the infrastructures of our society, in “the way things are.”

Some forms of discrimination are so institutionalized that the people perpetuating them are not even aware they are doing it. Yet in the end, it is not discrimination perpetuating itself, but people.

As people living in an America where discrimination is embedded in the infrastructure of “the way things are,” we need to think long and hard about our own roles in oppression. Perhaps we as individuals cannot change the schooling system, but we can as teachers decide to teach in ways that affirm differing viewpoints and treat students as human beings.

Maybe we as individuals cannot stop people from saying terrible things about and to other people, but we can choose to have conversations with our friends when they say such things. None of this is easy. The fact that doing these things might make a difference, even in just a few people’s lives, should be enough to make all the effort worth it.

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