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Prejudice and discrimination: Barriers to social inclusion

Societies continue to make distinctions based on ethnicity, race, sex or gender and other characteristics that should have no bearing on people’s achievements or on their well-being. The Report on the World Social Situation 2016 argued that discrimination is one of the key drivers of social exclusion (United Nations, 2016).

Discrimination remains a fundamental problem in the world today. Based on existing literature, the Report found that discriminatory norms and behaviours remain widespread and continue to drive social exclusion. Yet while formal institutional barriers faced by marginalized groups are easy to detect, informal barriers are frequently more subtle, making measuring discrimination di cult.

One way to measure discrimination is to ask people if they felt they’ve been treated unfairly due to their identity. Members of racial or ethnic minority groups in many countries feel that they face discrimination in day-to-day encounters. In a 2008 survey covering 23,500 immigrants and members of ethnic minorities across the European Union, one in four respondents reported feeling discriminated against in the previous 12 months on at least two grounds: ethnic or immigrant origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief or “other” reasons.

This data measures the views of those subject to discrimination but doesn’t measure the perceptions of those who may be prejudiced against certain groups. The World Values Surveys assess prejudicial attitudes through questions on whether respondents would object to having certain groups of people as neighbours as a measure of social distance between groups.

Attitudes towards migrants often become more negative in periods of economic insecurity or following large waves of immigration. The misperceptions that most often lead to negative attitudes include that migrants take away jobs from natives or they commit illegal acts, among others. That said, country context is the most important determinant of prejudicial attitudes: a country’s institutions, history, and values are better predictors of tolerance and respect of others than an individual’s level of education or employment.

How does discrimination impact social inclusion?

Discrimination affects people’s opportunities, their well-being, and their sense of agency. Persistent exposure to discrimination can lead individuals to internalize the prejudice or stigma that is directed against them, manifesting in shame, low self-esteem, fear and stress, as well as poor health. A survey regarding HIV-related stigma and discrimination among people living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific, for example, found that half to three-quarters of respondents felt either shame, guilt and/or low self-esteem.

Read our Social Development Brief on “Prejudice and discrimination: Barriers to social inclusion”.

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