There is substantial evidence of differential outcomes for different racial and ethnic groups in many social and economic arenas in America today, ranging from hiring and promotion in the labor market, to loan approvals in mortgage lending, to rates of arrest and incarceration in the criminal justice system. These disparities—and others—describe social conditions that most Americans believe deserve some measure of attention. To understand such conditions and fashion appropriate responses, it is important to assess whether and how racial discrimination, along with other factors, may contribute to observed disparities among racial and ethnic groups.
Research in social psychology suggests that categorizing individuals on the basis of salient, observable characteristics such as race, gender, age, and even patterns of dress and speech is inevitable, occurs automatically, and activates biases associated with these characteristics (Allport, 1954; Brewer and Brown, 1998; Devine, 1989, 2001; Fiske, 1998). Some researchers posit that automatic categorization will fail to elicit biased responses among those motivated not to be prejudiced (Devine, 1989, 2001), yet people regularly use such categories to make distinctions and sometimes to perpetuate social inequalities among different groups. Although people categorize others in various ways, the focus in this report is on racial and ethnic distinctions and identifying methods that may make it possible to measure the presence and extent of racial and ethnic discrimination in a social or economic domain.
Before reviewing measurement methods, it is necessary first to define race and racial discrimination and to outline theories or models of how different types and mechanisms of discrimination may operate in various
arenas. A clear conceptual framework is needed to guide appropriate data collection and analysis for measurement and to identify key assumptions of the underlying model. This part of the report is intended to provide that framework.
Chapter 2 briefly reviews biological and social concepts of race and adopts a social–cognitive definition in which race is based on observable physical features and associated characteristics that have acquired socially significant meaning. As such, social categorizations of race evolve over time and differ in different societies and contexts. The chapter presents background on the history and meaning of race in the United States and summarizes the federal government’s racial and ethnic categories for data collection. The discussion reviews the ambiguities that complicate the definition and measurement of race.
Chapter 3 provides a social science definition of racial discrimination with two components that correspond to legal concepts of disparate treatment discrimination and disparate impact discrimination. Each component goes beyond a strictly legal definition to include some individual behaviors and organizational processes that may not be unlawful but that have discriminatory effects; that is, they result in adverse consequences for racial groups. We explain why we focus in this report on racial discrimination against disadvantaged groups, and we provide evidence of racial disparities in outcomes across various social and economic domains. Racial disparities can occur for many reasons; their existence motivates our examination of social science methods that can help determine the role that race-based discrimination may play in those differences.
In Chapter 4, we provide theories or models of racial discrimination. To be able to measure racial discrimination of a particular kind, it is necessary to have a theory or model of how such discrimination might occur and what its effects might look like. The theory or model, in turn, specifies the data that are needed to test the theory, appropriate methods for analyzing the data, and the assumptions that the data and analysis must satisfy in order to support a finding of discrimination. Without such a theory, analysts may produce results that are hard to interpret and do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. The chapter discusses four types of discrimination and the various mechanisms that may lead to such discrimination. It then discusses how these discriminatory behaviors and practices might operate within the domains of education, employment, housing, criminal justice, and health. Finally, the chapter briefly discusses concepts of cumulative discrimination across domains and over time.