Normative Discrimination: the Foundation of Prejudice

An excerpt from the forthcoming book “Rethinking Misrecognition and Struggles for Recognition”

Normative discrimination is the authoritative core of hierarchical oppression that separates out a social group for exclusion from the benefits accorded to “proper” social groups. What I call “normative discrimination” is the use of recognition-like norms that designate particular social groups as having negative traits that characterize those groups as deficient and inferior. These norms are a form of negative recognition that mediates our interactions with certain groups, dictating that the appropriate response is to deny these groups positive recognition and moral consideration. Because the discrimination is guided by recognition-like norms, individuals perpetrate it believing they are behaving properly.

The negative recognition of normative discrimination differs from a negative response to violations of norms such as disapproving of dishonesty or theft. There, the negative response recognizes the rights of those who have been wronged, and a negative response to wrongdoers is an appropriate upholding of norms. When we punish someone who has been convicted of a crime with imprisonment or fines, we are upholding general norms that recognize the rights of victims of the crime, even if we are denying recognition to the convicted individual’s freedom and desire to not be punished. In contrast, a normative discrimination is when a trait that should be neutral to moral norms, such as skin color, ethnicity, or religion, is taken as a negative and all who hold that trait are regarded as less worthy than others. Bader’s “criteria of ascription,” by which he categorizes structural asymmetries of power and practices of discrimination, oppression, and exclusion as being socially defined and ascribed characteristics of targeted groups, are examples of normative discrimination.[1]

Normative discrimination is directed predominantly at social groups separated by race, gender, class, and so on. Additional illusionary negatives are often attributed to a social group, such as labeling all Muslims as violent, all Jews as dishonest, all gays as promiscuous, all who live in poverty deserving their poverty because they are lazy or ignorant, and so on. Normative discrimination disregards and often actively denies the consideration of individuals and their particular traits and contributions. How the targets of normative discrimination actually are is irrelevant to the negative stereotypes because the illusionary negatives attributed to the group dominate social perception of all members of the group. Perpetrators unreflectively follow the norms that dictate behavior toward the targeted groups. The normative character of normative discrimination discourages questioning whether the traits it attributes to targeted groups are actually present in individual members of that group.

Normative discrimination can be taken to the extreme of a group being attributed to being undeserving of any moral consideration. This misrecognition is beyond a lack of awareness of the moral standing of others and is a conscious antagonism toward others. An individual engaged in this comportment considers the appropriate response to other groups of human beings is to deprive the other actively of recognition as a human being. The extreme hostility toward a number of historically marginalized groups such as Gypsies and Jews in Europe, Dalits in India, and Burakumin in Japan are examples of this extreme normative discrimination. Someone born into one of these groups is condemned for life to misrecognition. The stigma attached to certain diseases or conditions also fits into normative discrimination. Those afflicted with leprosy were outcast from society as unclean.[2] More recently, those afflicted with AIDS have suffered similar pariah status. In both cases, the ostracizing was accompanied by moral rebuke, the victims condemned as immoral simply for having a disease. One could say these people are rendered invisible, but it is more accurate to say they are condemned as unfit to be included and are dispossessed of rights and status.

Slavery, in particular the institution of slavery in the United States, is an historical example of how normative discrimination is a distinct form of engagement with recognition norms that leads to misrecognition and injustice. Slavery shows that normative discrimination precedes a denial of recognition relations — the criteria of ascription in this case rendering African people as beings to enslave because they are inferior. Slavery is a relationship defined by a malicious use of power, but slavery in the Americas did not result from taking away an existing recognition relation from members of a community and enslaving them. Indentured servitude and debtors’ prisons is a destruction of an existing recognition relation. An impoverished European (already suffering from normative discrimination because of his or her class) was condemned to a debtors’ prison because he or she allegedly violated his or her responsibilities as a member of society. The social institution of debtors’ prisons operates as a social relation that can be used properly or improperly. However, barbaric we would consider the practice today, the social institution of debtors’ prison was part of society’s structure of legal recognition norms. An individual could be rightfully condemned to debtors’ prison and an individual wrongly condemned to debtors’ prison would be suffering an injustice according to society’s norms. Distinctions between just and unjust imprisonment was possible because inmates were, at least to a point, considered members of society with whom recognition relations were possible.

Slavery operates under a very different set of assumptions because the normative discrimination based on race denied the possibility of recognition relations. Rather than a rupture of a recognition relation of social inclusion, the slave is, as Orlando Patterson observes, natally alienated: denied a priori the possibility of recognition relations.[3] As Frantz Fanon observed, racism reduces others to nothing more than skin, a skin to which they are chained and determined. The recognition norms of the dominant culture are imposed onto the oppressed who are represented through normative discrimination as mere animal bodies unable to think, reason, or speak properly.[4] The Native Americans and Africans enslaved by Europeans were always outsiders to the European slavers and had never been afforded recognition other than normative discrimination. The recognition order of European culture negatively recognized non-Europeans as inferior and uncivilized, and this normative assumption framed European encounters with indigenous people throughout the world. Africans and Native Americans had never been included, so enslaving them was ethically possible in a way that enslaving Europeans was not.

Slavery was fundamentally different from being excluded from the community and denied rights because the enslaved human beings were considered property. Indentured servants were also treated as a kind of property to be bought, used, and sold. What is different between slaves and indentured servants is the type of recognition relations involved. The indentured servants’ status as property was defined by contracts for set terms, and their recognition as free beings was held in abeyance, under the assumption that the servant willingly entered into the contract. Similarly, the prisoner, whether debtor or criminal, has a status with a limited time frame. Indentured servants were subordinated, deprived of freedom, and often exploited, yet they retained a recognition relation to society with the hope of improvement of their social standing, however limited that potential may have been. Slaves, being natally alienated, had a very different recognition relation. Questions about slaves’ integrity, honor, autonomy, or self-respect were nonsensical to anyone who engaged with the norms that specified what the slaves were — property. Slaves were, as Patterson observes, annulled of rights and identity, without ties to past or future, unrecognizable as human beings, at best shadow members of society.[5]

Slavery was not an act like flogging, rape, torture, or social ostracizing. Slavery was enforced through violence, but the violence stemmed from a systemic misrecognition attitude of normative discrimination. The attitude of impossibility of the slaves’ social inclusion preceded the enslavement because the normative discrimination framed the recognition relations with the slave whether the slave was captured or born into slavery. Before the violent act of enslavement occurred, the target, reduced to skin as Fanon said, had been deemed to be compatible with enslavement. Whether the assessment was that the slaves were undeserving of freedom or deserving of enslavement, the misrecognition was a normative discrimination against those who possessed the trait of dark skin and, therefore, lacked humanity, dignity, and rationality. It is not so much that the slave was objectified as a tool as much as it was that the slave was tracked as being of no value beyond menial labor. The slave master did not seek recognition from the slaves — the slave master sought work and obedience from them no different than from his other beasts of burden. The normative discrimination against those of dark skin precluded the possibility of human recognition in any direction. Here, I say “human recognition” because a slave could be prized and praised in the same way a good horse could be.

Our contemporary society does not have slavery per se, though a Marxist theorist could point to low wages as a form of slavery. Our society retains the normative discrimination of what Andrew Sayer calls “contributive injustice” — the social misrecognition that restricts what members of social classes are allowed to contribute, particularly in terms of occupations.[6] The lottery of birth restricts most individuals to an inheritance of class distinction that limits their economic opportunities, whereas members of the lucky sperm club[7] inherit wealth either directly or through privileged opportunities for education, jobs, and careers. As Sayer observes,[8] public attitudes support the idea that greater contributions to society deserve greater compensation, but the public attributes the value of contributions on the basis of class and an unequal distribution of labor. The social structure produces unequal opportunities, with jobs with higher social status and compensation going to a privileged class. Most of the problems of distributive injustice stem from this contributive injustice because low-value jobs are given low-value compensation. Sayer correctly observes that what individuals are allowed to contribute is at least as important as what they receive in terms of resources.[9] This misrecognition is centered on jobs and occupations, but it extends to educational and cultural opportunities, the health hazards and health care one encounters, where one can afford to live, and all of the lifestyle opportunities that go with these. Contributive injustice is a normative discrimination against others who are not allowed to contribute and not allowed to use their talents and explore their possibilities. A wide range of social groups are negatively tracked and restricted as to the occupations they can enter. Women being occupationally restricted is connected to pathological recognition, as I will discuss next, but the normative discrimination against women as weaker and less rational also restricts their occupational opportunities and leads to the glass ceiling within occupations. Minorities of race, ethnicity, and religion are also negatively discriminated against and restricted to low-value occupations. Mostly though, contributive injustice is tied to class, with labor divided between blue-collar and white-collar, and individual workers are subsumed under the norms that designate as inferior their social contributions and status.

Despite the fact that contributive injustice damages not only the afflicted individuals but also the whole of society that misses out on the potential contributions of so many, its injustice persists because the normative discrimination is seen as a proper response to how things are. Sayer observes that one of the most common contemporary misrecognitions is underestimating the extent to which structural inequalities give only some individuals preferential access to practices that are socially recognized.[10] Sayer argues that the cause of this unequal distribution of occupations — society’s structural inequalities — is likely to be misrecognized as being the deserved product of effort and intelligence. Furthermore, specific individuals’ contributions are evaluated according to the unequal distribution of labor, misrecognizing their contributions and qualities. The combination of these two misrecognitions means that regardless of individual traits and efforts, the economically privileged are seen as having earned their wealth, and the economically disadvantaged are seen as deserving of their lack of wealth. This denial of recognition for the economically disadvantaged is a normative discrimination that sees them as inferior: The poor deserve to be poor because they are lazy and incompetent. The companion misrecognition is assuming that any wealthy person, especially white men, has wealth because of earning it through hard work and superior ability. These misrecognitions hide and reinforce contemporary society’s structures that created class inequality, contributive and distributional injustices, and their accompanying pathological recognition and normative discrimination norms.

All forms of normative discrimination reduce individuals to a negative preconception without individuality and perhaps without humanity. The negative preconception, not the other individual, is being seen, and the other is being viewed through the negative preconception and treated with hostility on the basis of it. The mistake in normative discrimination is that the perpetrator is guided by his or her own preconceptions (though these preconceptions are usually learned from the culture’s recognition norms) rather than the attributes actually possessed of the other individual. The perpetrator assumes, if not insists, that the oppressed others conform to those preconceptions, and the perpetrator is resistant to contrary information. Negative recognition norms are a denial, often with malice, of the positive values and contributions of others who hold particular traits and, thus, are misrecognition. Oppressed individuals are reduced to objects and rendered without voice or will, and their experiences, words, and actions are suspected and delegitimized. Today, for example, Muslims are tracked (literally and figuratively) as terrorists; their every word and action is treated as suspect, and their claims for recognition as human beings are delegitimized.

In today’s pluralistic society, malice in normative discrimination often reflects social insecurity by dominant groups against minority groups. Racists, sexists, homophobes, jingoists, and antireligious bigots of all stripes imagine themselves harmed by the social inclusion of hated and feared groups. To see others one thinks inferior being treated equally by society is perceived as a moral insult. Normative discrimination also arises in the midst of ethnic and sectarian conflicts. When tensions exist between social groups, all sides can become paranoid and overly sensitive to what the other groups are doing. Actions by the other groups are negatively tracked and perceived as threatening, and the success and well-being of other groups may be perceived as a matter of the others receiving greater and unfair advantages, thus diminishing one’s own perceived social position. In the eyes of a Capulet, there is no good in a Montague.

Common targets of negative stereotyping are subcultures and countercultural movements, such as religious sects and youth movements. As Stanley Cohen observed, the behavior of subcultures, such as the violence between mods and rockers in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, is exaggerated by the mainstream culture to hysterical proportions, generating unwarranted hostility against those subcultures.[11] Members of the subculture are stigmatized as moral outsiders or, as Cohen calls them, “folk devils,” who are defined as a threat to the mainstream social order, values, and interests. The perceived threat becomes a moral panic,[12] rousing normative discrimination against the members of the subculture. Members of a subculture are labeled as deviants, and “once a person is thus type cast, his acts are interpreted in terms of the status to which he has been assigned.”[13] I will explore ways that members of subcultures respond to misrecognition in chapter 2.4.5.

The morality of normative discrimination is easily compartmentalized by perpetrators. Those who deny equal rights to women, minorities, immigrants, or other groups often do not see themselves as being against rights and equality. They would see their exclusion of particular groups not as a double standard but as consistent with and upholding of moral norms. They would justify their disparate treatment with an interpretive narrative of why targeted groups are deserving of exclusion. Superficially rational arguments are used to justify the misrecognition as a case of the victims deserving it and even that there is an ethical demand to misrecognize these individuals because of their traits. The presence of normative discrimination reinforces an environment in which mistreatment of others is defensible. Normative discrimination is essentially what Honneth describes as social ostracizing. Instances of normative discrimination will be witnessed by other individuals who will become disinclined to offer recognition to socially ostracized individuals, and will even be encouraged actively to misrecognize those individuals. Powerful individuals and institutions can use arguments and persuasion to convince others to engage in normative discrimination against targeted groups or individuals. Similarly, individuals can appeal to interpretive narratives to provide post hoc validity for misrecognition motivated by personal reasons. Often, rational arguments are not needed to tap into fear and hatred of others who are different.

The misrecognitions discussed above are behaviors in which individuals believe they are acting appropriately. Even the victims of misrecognition may come to believe their treatment is appropriate. Individuals in groups targeted by normative discrimination can identify with the definitions ascribed to them but at the cost of their social and personal value without receiving any compensatory positive self-affirmation. Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a social field can help us understand this.[14] A culture generates a social field of objective structures and relations within which individuals perceive, interpret, and act. The rules of the field that structure intersubjective relations include recognition norms, which, through socialization, become part of individuals’ habitus — their dispositions and embodied agency within the social field. How individuals perceive, assess, and interact with each other is structured by their position within the social field and the recognition norms that structure interactions. When recognition norms are discriminatory, they distort individuals’ conceptions of what appropriate recognition behaviors are. These distortions can become engrained in individuals’ habitus and thus part of their daily attitudes and behaviors beneath reflective awareness. The distortions are part of

the set of fundamental, pre-reflexive assumptions that social agents engage by … accepting the world as it is, and of finding it natural because their mind is constructed according to cognitive structures that are issued out of the very structures of the world.[15]

Conversely, McBride argues that the socially disadvantaged can still maintain a sense of subjective well-being. One can opt to identify with one’s lowly social position by seeing one’s status as part of a larger purpose and can boost one’s self-esteem through taking this perspective.[16] I would argue that such a psychological adaptation is a self-misrecognizing in which the misrecognition received from others is internalized into one’s habitus. The structures of the social field and the interactions between individuals mediate but do not determine the exact behaviors of individuals. As we will see in chapter 2.2, the concept of habitus also helps describe how individuals can resist misrecognition.

[1] Veit Bader, “Misrecognition, Power, and Democracy,” in Recognition and Power: Axel Honneth and the Tradition of Critical Social Theory, ed. Bert van den Brink and David Owen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 244–246.

[2] A good study of this is Ricardo Fabrino Mendonça, “Recognition and Esteem: A Case Study of the Struggles of People Affected by Leprosy,” in The Politics of Misrecognition, ed. Simon Thompson and Majid Yar (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2011), 145–168.

[3] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 13.

[4] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 110–113.

[5] Patterson, 263.

[6] Andrew Sayer, “Contributive Justice and Meaningful Work,” Res Publica 15 (1), 2009, 1–16.

[7] My term, not Sayer’s.

[8] Andrew Sayer, “Misrecognition: The Unequal Division of Labour and Contributive Justice,” in Politics of Misrecognition (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2011), 87–103.

[9] Sayer, “Misrecognition: The Unequal Division of Labour and Contributive Justice,” 92.

[10] Sayer, “Misrecognition: The Unequal Division of Labour and Contributive Justice,” 87.

[11] Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (London: Grenada Publishing, 1972).

[12] Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 9.

[13] Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 12.

[14] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1993).

[15] Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc J.D. Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 168.

[16] McBride, 117–118.

Much more in-depth philosophy content at

Philosophy professor reaching out beyond the ivory tower. I also run and

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store