Key to Just World: Understanding Systemic Discrimination Patterns

University of Helsinki

Arbitrary markers, such as skin colour or gender, are still used to justify systems of hierarchy and domination. As societies, we must understand how systemic discrimination and violence operate in order to tackle them.

(Image: Mostphotos)

Patterns of discrimination, violence and inequality are some of the leading problems in today´s world and major obstacles to achieving a more just world. Social customs have historically dictated that, for example, white males are entitled to hold property rights, while females and ethnic minorities have been given restricted rights. Women and ethnic minorities have themselves been classified as property in institutions of slavery and coverture. While in recent decades, legislation across the globe has sought to address these inequalities and human rights mechanisms have paid special attention to the rights of the most marginalized populations, domination of minorities by majorities has by no means ceased to exist.

Divisions based on binary tags shape social relations

In the modern world, women and gender nonconforming individuals continue to face violence based on gender stereotypes, the pay gap between men and women has not been resolved, black people face arbitrary police violence in the US and elsewhere, and ethnic minorities in practise lack state recognition for their cultures. These are just some examples of how discrimination and inequality continue to manifest themselves.

What these manifestations have in common is how binary tags are applied. By binary tags, I refer to arbitrary markers, such as skin colour or gender, that people use to classify others into ingroup and outgroup members. While of course I do not suggest that aspects such as gender and ethnicity are arbitrary facts of individuals’ identity, they are arbitrarily used to divide people into categories of inferiority and superiority and to justify systems of hierarchy and domination.

Although these types of divisions based on binary tags have been condemned officially, they continue to shape social relations. As societies, we must understand how systemic discrimination and violence operate in order to tackle them. This article seeks to provide a glimpse into my work on computer simulations which contribute to the debate on how systemic discrimination operates and hopefully guides in the process of finding solutions on how we can create a more just world for all.

One group always dominates over the other

Social cooperation, how to best achieve it and why it fails, are extremely important themes in social science research more broadly as well. Different models have been commonly applied to study when and why cooperation fails. In my work, I have been interested in a model called the Hawk-Dove game, which allows placing power at the centre of the analysis. I am particularly concerned with what happens to cooperation when an arbitrary binary tag is introduced and conflict results when neither cooperates.

To grasp the idea of the Hawk-Dove game, imagine two cars that are facing each other. Their aim is to intimidate the other off the road. When the flag is waved, the two cars drive towards each other. There are three possible outcomes: first, the winning car (the Hawk) stays on the road while the loser (the Dove) swerves off the road; second, both cars swerve off the road and there is a draw (Dove-Dove); or third, neither car swerves and there is a collision (Hawk-Hawk).

I have developed a computer model to test my theoretical predictions. My simulation, based on the Hawk-Dove game, shows that when the population is homogeneous, then decisions of whether to attack or to swerve are random and strategic players make the choice on a case-by-case basis. However, when players are divided into two groups, one group will always come to dominate over the other. Once this pattern becomes established, it is then impossible for one individual or a small group to change the status quo. These inevitable dynamics result in systemic discrimination and hierarchy within the game.

Initially, I relied completely on my computer model to develop these findings. The novelty of the study attracted the attention of Dr Christopher J. Watts. He built his own computer simulation which enabled us to agree on the outcome of the research. Working together we showed conclusively that in populations with identical individuals, only differentiated by an arbitrary tag, majorities benefit from intense threats of violence. These could range from physical harm and incapacitation to property damage. Alternatively, minorities can benefit from lesser threats of harm. These could include verbal insults and hostile actions that are symbolic gestures. However, given the possibility of escalation of violence, and the fact that our models show that majorities gain the upper hand by this tactic, majorities will likely prevail over minorities.

Patterns of discrimination exist in real life

We found that in repeated encounters with threats of violence, a norm of discrimination always results. Members of one group dominate, and members of the other group are forced to submit. Our models show that the tags labelling all individuals as a member of one group or another are sufficient to result in systemic discrimination. Discrimination is not intended, but results nonetheless.

It is obvious that these patterns of discrimination do not merely exist in computer simulations. Rather, they are observable in real life and are historically familiar to us, across cultures with gendered and racialized customs.

While the findings only show that arbitrary binary labels are sufficient to lead to patterns of widespread domination and do not consider cultural and historical factors of discrimination, they are still highly important. They provide insight into the extent to which the discrimination that many marginalised people continue to face today is reliant on the threat of violence and arbitrary binary tags. Identity politics that focus on removing these binary tags may help to challenge the ability of a majority to systematically dominate over a minority.

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