The Eye of the Beholder

Yesterday, I posted about a recent court case that required a judge to define the limits of permissible discrimination.

In a very real way, however, discussion of that case and the merits of the contending arguments begged a couple of important preliminary questions: what is discrimination? when does the day-to-day practice of making choices—discriminating between possibilities A, B and C—cease being a reasonable activity we all engage in and become a socially destructive practice in which privileged people oppress those less powerful or advantaged?

Where does that line get drawn?

Recent research suggests that the general public is polarized around the answers to those questions, and that the polarization mirrors political affiliation.

The partisan lens through which many view the social and political world also impacts perceptions of discrimination: as the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2015 American Values Survey shows, Democrats and Republicans have a very different understanding of the nature of discrimination in the U.S. today—and who are the most likely targets of it.

Not surprisingly, Republicans are far less likely to see discrimination against historically marginalized groups than are Democrats. (Click through to see several interesting graphics representing responses to questions about discrimination from self-identified Republicans and Democrats, contrasted with responses from the general public overall.)

As the study’s authors note, the difference in perceived discrimination tells us a lot about the partisan differences in policy.

Overall, the pattern is clear: there is considerable daylight between those on the left and those on the right when it comes to perceptions of discrimination in America today. Perhaps then, it is not surprising that Democrats and Republicans have such divergent opinions on issues ranging from black Americans’ protesting unfair government treatment to legislation protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from discrimination. If you don’t perceive discrimination against certain underrepresented groups or marginalized communities to be especially severe or widespread, then these protests and policy proposals might appear to be solutions in search of a problem. If, however, you believe that the discrimination against these groups is particularly severe, then such protests and policy demands are understandable and perhaps even a necessity.

A big part of our current political dysfunction is a reflection of the fact that conservatives and liberals occupy different realities.

Sort of reminds me of that old song, “Two different worlds….”


  1. Viewing this blog from a very personal point of view; here is my simple description/example of the difference between discrimination and a socially destructive practice.

    My family, including extended family members, were appalled when I filed for divorce from my first husband. My father offered to give me money if I would drop the divorce. Many turned their backs on me. They had no concept of what went on – or didn’t go on – within my marriage. Their actions were a “socially destructive practice” based on their belief as to the situation of my personal life based on their own.

    When I married a Black man they ran en masse to distance themselves from an intelligent, hard working, responsible, caring, funny man they had never met and had no interest in knowing. They practiced (some still practice) blatant “discrimination” for one reason and one reason only…the color of his skin.

    This is being practiced in this country regarding entire groups of people based on what conservatives personally believe to be who and what these groups are due to the similarity to themselves vs. the identity (racial, religious, nationality, political affiliations, etc.) of the “different” groups.

    “A big part of our current political dysfunction is a reflection of the fact that conservatives and liberals occupy different realities.”

    Are they actually different “realities” or the lack of knowledge regarding the other’s reality? I believe we would find more similarities between conservative and liberal VOTERS if we would ask and they would be honest in their answers…this would require both sides block out the current presidential candidates.

    The current political candidates of the GOP are another matter entirely; they use discrimination and fear to feed on the needs and fears of conservative humanity; proposing oppositional ways of resolving what are the same basic human needs and fears of liberals. They can NOT be compared to any other political candidates of any party in the entire history of this country and they are reaching epidemic proportions of a dangerous level. Be afraid, be very afraid!

  2. @ Blog

    As a participant and observer of Sheila’s Blog for the past six months, I would urgently advise that you pay more attention to JoAnn and keep in mind what she has just said:

    “They (the GOP) can NOT be compared to any other political candidates of any party in the entire history of this country and they are reaching epidemic proportions of a dangerous level. Be afraid, be very afraid!”

    JoAnn’s vision is the most valid. She has lived on both sides of the Black and White divide. By doing so, she has relinquished “white privilege.” Being against racism doesn’t mean you have relinquished “white privilege.” If you are holding on to that you cannot see the reality of a devastating race war that JoAnn has the ability to comprehend.

    Consequently, in the long run “white privilege” becomes just as big a problem as “white racism.” Both problems have to be addressed or INEVITABLY the only consequence for our country will be RACIAL WARFARE. How many among us are willing to give up “white privilege”?

  3. We only control our prejudices when we admit that we have them in the first place. Most people do not believe they are prejudiced and they assign no such motives to their statements or actions.

  4. My pastor just gave a sermon this morning about shepherds and their rods and staffs which were used to protect and defend but also to discipline. They had responsibility for all their animals and searched out any who were lost. They were leaders. They were also unclean. They smelled like their sheep. They were disheveled. People avoided them. Yet they were the first to whom angels appeared to announce the birth of Christ. They came to worship him and were welcomed, as were 3 kings. Throughout his life, Jesus reached out to everyone including prostitutes, lepers, criminals, etc., and his life is held up as that of a good shepherd – one to copy.

    He’s a hard act to follow. Is our shepherding worthy of imitation?

  5. Marv, I would like to add that being a “second class” citizen all my life by virtue of being a female has been a struggle. We can be more intelligent, more hard working and better at problem solving for both our employers and society in general, yet we will always be held under the thumbs of the men in power. If we stand up for ourselves we are labeled.

  6. Nancy,

    “Marv, I would like to add that being a “second class” citizen all my life by virtue of being a female has been a struggle.”

    I didn’t mean to diminish the serious problem of male dominance in our country’s socio-political/economic paradigm. In my opinion, it’s just as big as problem as white racism.

    And it hasn’t disappeared just because Hillary Clinton is a serious Presidential candidate.

  7. The problem is the extreme to which the far right and left have gone… There is no meeting at the center. I think that the Bible gets a bad rap because people keep trying to interpret it, instead of trying to understand it. There IS a huge reason that the Old Testament is different from the New Testament. What was physical and mental law transitioned into Spiritual grace and truth. We are all souls, created by God, manifested in these various bodies of HIS choosing, full of purpose and potential, to share and maintain this gift of the the planet earth… Jesus was not too conservative nor too liberal, not too far left or right, He was perfect (which no government understands), telling us to love your neighbor as you love yourself, do what is good and right, and leave judgment to Him, period! He can handle it… We all must decide whether we want to be part of the problems on this planet or apart of the solutions on this planet (racially, ethnically, internationally, etc.). Unity over division, relationship over religion! Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men… We really need to get out of our own way!!…
    Salute to JoAnn, Marv, and Peggy!!!

  8. “A big part of our current political dysfunction is a reflection of the fact that conservatives and liberals occupy different realities.”

    I think that there is an important point to be made between the phrases “different perspectives” and “different realities”.

    We all view reality from different perspectives. As men vs women, whites vs blacks, faith full vs agnostic, more vs less educated, Christian vs Jew vs Muslim, wealthy vs poor, healthy vs handicapped the same reality will appear different – the three blind men feeling an elephant – but it remains the same reality.

    How does one explain though “different realities”?

    While they are important to all of us, human’s five senses, the only pathways to our brain, are extremely limited to only our place and time and scale. Most of life takes place unsensed by us but accepted through second person input – learning.

    Consider that liberal learning currently tends to come from teaching that reflects different perspectives but the one reality. Conservative learning from a complex pseudo reality based mostly on what recipients would like to be true or teachers following an agenda that they would like to be true.

    One of the reasons that conservatism’s track record of delivering is so dismal is that it intends to construct a different reality than reveal a different perspective on what is in fact real.

    To build on a popular but nearly dysfunctional perspective liberalism is organic or natural and conservatism is artificial or manufactured. No matter how much conservatives wish reality was different.

  9. Ernest,

    ‘…..May we all move forward together!…”

    I thought this goes hand in hand with your comments:

    “The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors….but always most in the common people….their good temper and openhandedness….the terrible significance of their elections….the President taking off his hat to them not they o him—-these too are unrhymed poetry….The largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen.
    ~Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”, 1855, Preface

    Sheila by her gift of this “Free Space” allows a glimmer of hope for the possibility that the United States can make a miraculous comeback.

  10. My take on the late 20th Century Republican Party since Nixon’s Southern Strategy and into the 21 st Century is the Republican Party has very little empathy for African-Americans, Hispanics, or Gay People. Now FOX News and other Websites have categorized the WASP’s as the persecuted such as the War on Christmas.

    The Bible Thumpers are working over time to promote the idea that the Butcher, the Baker, and Candlestick Maker should have the Right to discriminate against who ever they want based upon some bogus “Strongly Held Religious Belief”.

    The Republicon Debates are all about fear of this or fear of that. They have no solutions.

  11. It boils down to what we choose to discriminate for or against, and that choice is often made for us via culture, family etc. If, for instance, I as a white man had been raised in the antebellum South, I would have most probably been what we call a racist (though there is no such thing; there is only one race). Those who discriminate on grounds of color, religion, class etc. these days have no excuse to decide what it is they will discriminate for or against based upon immersion in culture and family everyday living when countercultural information is, after all, a part of the culture being passed on to anyone in these days of instant communication which provide alternative thinking to counter that of the kitchen table and what grandpa thought in another day and age.

    We all discriminate neutrally based upon an understanding that discrimination involves choice of alternatives, i.e., which street to take to market, which brand of toothpaste to buy etc. However, some areas do not or should not provide “choice” in a democracy, like not hiring a person based upon color or religion or class, where human rights are involved in our otherwise routine and neutral acts of discrimination. Human rights are not toothpaste, and social cohesion demands that we give up some of our rights in order to secure them for ourselves. Discrimination has become a four-letter word, but it is not per se bad; it depends upon the target and the precepts of democracy to be applied if the target requires an exercise in fleshing out our democratic values, and color, religion, class etc. are worthy targets for our democratic attention.

  12. While there is always the possibility that I read over the comments too quickly and overlooked it, the primary case in point–that different people define discrimination a little differently–is Mike Pence. On the passing of the infamous LGBT law, he came out, all doe-eyed, resolutely maintaining that he believed was discrimination as evil and would never support it, yet we know that he did. We have seen his reasoning on the matter, which means that he refuses to see the law as unfair discrimination, so I guess if you don’t see it, it’s not there. I suspect he may see it sometime during 2016, when it becomes the wall between him and his second term.

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