Detecting and Understanding Racial Discrimination in the 21st Century

S. Michael Gaddis
5 min readApr 30, 2021
Sign directly opposite the Sojourner Truth, a federal housing project, in Detroit, Michigan. February, 1942. Credit: Arthur Siegel, Office of War Information, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. Accession Number 2013–3716. This image is in the public domain.

The image above depicts a dark time in U.S. history. This was the face of racial discrimination before the 1960s.

Public, common, direct, and fueled by outright racial animus.

Scholars define racial discrimination as “different treatment on the basis of race that disadvantages a racial group.” In other words, racial discrimination occurs when an individual or organization takes action that treats individuals in different ways depending on their race.

An important point here: distinguishing whether the treatment is intentional or unintentional does not matter if the result is the same.

The hard-fought Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the first major statement against racial discrimination by the federal government. The Fair Housing Act followed in 1968. Employers, real estate agencies, and landlords could no longer discriminate based on race without potential legal consequences.

Did these laws change anything? Yes, but not in the ways that many hoped.

To understand racial discrimination in the 21st century, you have to understand the intricacies of how we detect and measure discrimination as a response to civil rights legislation.

How Has Discrimination Changed?

By the 1970s, the federal government began enforcing discrimination law in employment through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Individuals and organizations were put on alert.

Anti-discrimination laws induced a change in U.S. society. Racial discrimination became a more private act. Moreover, racial discrimination slowly became a bit more uncommon and driven less by direct racial animus.

None of this means that racial discrimination disappeared. Nor does it mean that racial discrimination no longer matters.

That is because the federal government can threaten legal action and change the action of discrimination without changing the intentions behind or desire to discriminate.

Detecting and Measuring Discrimination by Talking to People

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S. Michael Gaddis

UCLA professor. Peeking into the interesting parts of the social world through data.