The State Services Commission describes structural discrimination as occurring “when an entire network of rules and practices disadvantages less empowered groups while serving at the same time to advantage the dominant group”.8 Structural discrimination affects everyone, because it is a system of allocating and maintaining social privilege.9 Those who are marginalised by this system face socio-economic disadvantage and political isolation.10
Structural discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, skin colour or national origin is also called institutional racism. In 1988, the groundbreaking Pūao-te-ata-tū (Daybreak) report, commissioned by the then Department of Social Welfare, described institutional racism as “the most insidious and destructive form of racism”. It continued:
National structures are evolved which are rooted in the values, systems and viewpoints of one culture only. Participation by minorities is conditional on their subjugating their own values and systems to those of “the system” of the power culture.11
If some groups suffer the ill-effects of structural discrimination on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity, or national origin, then it follows that someone benefits. In New Zealand, that group is Pākehā New Zealanders, who currently make up the majority of the population.12 Not only do they have better outcomes on nearly every socio-economic indicator, but they have also accumulated inter-generational benefits over time that concentrate and sustain ethnic differences in wealth, power and other indicators of wellbeing. This does not mean that some Pākehā New Zealanders do not suffer the effects of poverty or discrimination. Nor does it mean that all individuals from other ethnic groups experience socio-economic disadvantage and discrimination. Rather, it means that as a group, Pākehā New Zealanders exercise more power and privilege relative to other ethnic groups.
Structural discrimination can occur unintentionally, and includes informal practices that have become embedded in everyday organisational life and effectively become part of the system, i.e. “how we do things around here. Put simply, it can be discrimination by habit, rather than intent.13
Because it is located in habits and built into structures and systems in often covert ways
, structural discrimination can be more difficult for those in power to identify than individual discrimination or personal bias. Researchers have identified a specialised form of structural discrimination in New Zealand
, referring to “inclusion in principle, through use of encompassing and inclusive speech
, together with a resource-based exclusion supporting disparity in fact.”14
Organisations or systems may not be conscious that their rules and practices discriminate against specific ethnic groups. Yet these unconscious practices serve to perpetuate disadvantage. Consciously examining organisational rules, systems and practices through the “lens” of structural discrimination allows possible bias to come into view. Only when any bias becomes visible, can structural discrimination be appropriately addressed.
Examples of structural discrimination on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity or national origin can include:
racial profiling by security and law enforcement agencies
i.e. the inclusion of racial or ethnic characteristics in determining whether a person is considered likely to commit a particular type of crime or an illegal act. An example is when people of a particular ethnic group are more frequently stopped by police while driving for no obvious reason
support for measures that have a disproportionately negative effect on minority ethnic groups e.g. cutting funding to specific targeted programmes that are shown to improve outcomes for minority groups or implementing one-size-fits-all standards that do not account for different needs and values
under- or mis-representation of particular ethnic groups in the media
insufficient, patchy or poor-quality data collection on ethnicity
medical care and rehabilitation services that fail to account for the different health needs and cultural values of different communities
barriers to experienced by ethnic minorities, including difficulty obtaining interviews because of overseas qualifications and “foreign-sounding” names.15
In order to combat the effects of structural discrimination, the Pūao-te-ata-tū report called for:
conscious effort to make our institutions more culturally inclusive in their character, more accommodating of cultural difference. This does not begin and end at “the counter”. The change must penetrate to the recruitment and qualifications which shape the authority structures themselves.
This report seeks to re-start the conversation about how best to do this.
Structural discrimination and the Human Rights Act 1993
In New Zealand, the Human Rights Act 1993 (HRA) does not specifically include a definition of structural discrimination. Discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, ethnicity or national origin, however, is unlawful under the HRA
, and includes both direct and indirect discrimination. Structural discrimination can be considered a form of indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination occurs when an action or policy – including omission of an action or policy – that appears to treat everyone in the same way, actually has a disproportionate, negative effect on a person or group that cannot be objectively justified on one of the grounds in the HRA (in this case
, race, colour, ethnicity or national origin).16
The Human Rights Commission is mandated by the HRA to receive and act upon complaints of unlawful discrimination. Part 1A of the HRA applies the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (BORA) non-discrimination standard to public sector activities. This includes indirect discrimination (see Northern Regional Health Authority v Human Rights Commission  2 NZLR 218; (1997) 4 HRNZ 37 (HC).17
Part 2 applies primarily to the private sector and makes it unlawful to discriminate in certain areas on any of the prohibited grounds. The areas are employment, accommodation, access to public places, the provision of goods and services and educational facilities.
The court found that indirect discrimination on the basis of national origin had occurred in the Northern Regional Health Authority case, where a health provider had decided to only subsidise doctors with New Zealand qualifications.18
Aside from this case, there have been few significant cases on indirect discrimination on the basis of race, colour and ethnicity. Most have been on behalf of an individual rather than a group.19
Cases taken in other comparable jurisdictions give an indication of what kinds of systemic cases could be taken in the future. One landmark example is Griggs v Duke Power Co. (1971) that went to the United States’ Supreme Court.
This case can be summarised as follows. In the 1950s Duke Power’s Dan River plant had a policy that African-Americans were allowed to work only in its Labor department, which constituted the lowest-paying positions in the company. In 1955 the company added the requirement of a high school diploma for its higher paid jobs. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the company removed its racial restriction, but retained the high school diploma requirement, and added the requirement of an IQ test as well as the diploma. African-American applicants, less likely to hold a high school diploma and averaging lower scores on the IQ tests, were selected at a much lower rate for these positions compared to white candidates. It was found that white people who had been working at the firm for some time, but met neither of the requirements, performed their jobs as well as those that did meet the requirements. The court ruled that the company’s employment requirements did not pertain to applicants’ ability to perform the job, and so was discriminating against African-American employees, even though the company had not intended it to do so.20