Monday, September 25, 2006


Etymology: Latin discriminatus, past participle of discriminare, from discrimin-, discrimen distinction, from discernere to distinguish between
1 a : to mark or perceive the distinguishing or peculiar features of b : discriminate hundreds of colors
2 : to distinguish by discerning or exposing differences; especially : to distinguish from another like object
intransitive verb
1 a : to make a distinction discriminate among historical sources> b : to use good judgment
2 : to make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit

Function: noun
1 a : the act of discriminating b : the process by which two stimuli differing in some aspect are responded to differently
2 : the quality or power of finely distinguishing
3 a : the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually

The first and second definitions are not only good, but absolutely essential. We all do these things every day. We discriminate between food and poison. We discriminate between cars that run and lemons. We discriminate between what makes sense and what makes no sense at all.

Discrimination has a bad rap in North American English, because the word has been linked for so long to the word "racial." The problem with racial discrimination is NOT that discrimination is bad. The problem is, that race never has been and never can be a valid, rational, morally sound, basis for the exercise of discrimination. Many generations of sincere would-be scientists and philosophers, from Thomas Jefferson to Adolf Hitler, have tried to find differences of intelligence, morality, sociability, between human beings of different racial categories. They have all failed, because race is a distinction without a difference.

Jefferson speculated that Africans "excrete more through the pores and less through the kidneys," giving them a foul odor. Yes, Jefferson really wrote that. He was honest enough to say it was only speculation. But he was crude and ignorant enough to consider it. IF it had been TRUE, it would have been a perfectly reasonable basis to discriminate in access to bathroom and shower facilities, and hotel rooms. Not on the basis of race – different rooms and different bathtubs for those who excrete through the pores, and those who excrete through the kidneys, whatever their complexion.

We now know with absolute certainty that this quaint notion is FALSE! The falsehood of the premise is the reason it is unacceptable to discriminate by race in housing, public accommodations, and bathrooms. Jefferson himself must have known better. He found his late wife Martha's part-African half-sister (Sally Hemmings) a perfectly attractive surrogate, and mother for a majority of his children.

We know now that if a man or woman of any racial or ethnic background, or skin color, is worked all day in muddy fields under a hot semi-tropical sun, deprived of running water, bathtubs, soap and perfumes, they will most certainly develop a foul odor. But, there are times when we all discriminate between people who, having access to running water, soap, and bathtubs, choose to make use of them, and those who for some reason do not.

Early on in the Civil Rights movement, National Review wrote that it supported "the South," because at that time the magazine's editors affirmed that the "white race was the superior race. National Review is always the last to catch on to any new development in God's creation, perhaps because it is run by people who have some difficulty discriminating between themselves and the Almighty. At least the editors had the humility to modify the term "superior" with the phrase "at this time." On the other hand, they had the infernal arrogance to exclude from the category "the South" some 40% or more of the people who lived there.

Skin color expresses only one difference: variations in one or more of five different genes result in different sensitivities to sunlight. Some people start developing a very deep tan as soon as they pop out of their mother, while others have to pay $29.95 to strip in a little booth and expose themselves to ultraviolet light, to get a fraction of the same effect. Genetic studies show that there have been three different northward migrations which independently resulted in descendants of dark-skinned equatorial populations evolving somewhat lighter complexions. (The gene combination that makes Nigerians dark is not the same as the gene combination that makes the original Australians dark.) It is a complex balance of the relative dangers of sunstroke vs. vitamin D deficiency. It is not a basis to discriminate in any other matter whatsoever.

We do continue to discriminate in public bathroom facilities: not by race, but between men and women. Why? Because there genuinely IS a marked and obvious difference between the sexes. Even some of the facilities are different. Both men and women appreciate the privacy. We discriminate against those whose personal preference is to violate that privacy, sometimes even locking them up in jail. Possibly we need to discriminate further, in order to achieve completely equal opportunity. (Some women advocate the women's restrooms should have more toilets than men's, and, they may be right. At least, perhaps as many more toilets as men have urinals?

IF dark skin color were genetically associated with a variation of Tourette's Syndrome, then it would be entirely appropriate todiscriminate in hiring people with this gene combination for certain jobs and positions of responsibility. Most rap artists exude a belief that indeed to be black IS to lace one's speech with endless repetition of profanity. However, there are men with darker skin than most rap artists serving as extremely erudite and very conservative Anglican bishops, not to mention the authors of some of our best-loved hymns and gospel songs . So we must find some other basis than race to discriminate. (Let's be honest: the first men and women from Africa who learned the more profane words of the English language heard it first from overseers or fellow-servants born in England.)

It is perfectly legal to discriminate in hiring for retail sales jobs, by excluding people who cannot control the constant stream of profanity that is a symptom of, among other things, Tourette's Syndrome. It doesn't matter what color the applicant is. A federal appeals court ruled long since that a retail business is not obligated to "accommodate" this "disability" by subjecting its customers to such language, regardless of the fact that the applicant cannot control what they are saying.

Our laws also discriminate between adults and children in allocation of legal rights and responsibilities. Why? Because children ARE less developed, less capable, less able to make decisions for themselves. They are still LEARNING the basic minimums required to function as adults. Not all adults have learned these minimums, but at least they have some years of experience, and have grown physically about as far as they are going to. Adults are also legally responsible for their actions, and can be imprisoned if they do not refrain from actions that harm others. (We discriminate between people who have committed violent offenses, and people who have not, in the degree of liberty each is entitled to.)

In some areas of national life, we need to discriminate MORE than we do now. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and all the laws that go with it, must discriminate between (not against, but between) people with physical disabilities and people with cognitive disabilities. Why? Because these are qualitatively different categories of disability. Most particularly, each has a markedly different impact on the INDEPENDENCE of those who suffer from them. A person who is quadraplegic may have a perfectly intact mind, capable of making ALL decisions about an individual's life – provided the individual is hooked up to necessary equipment so that it can make those decisions known, and act upon them. On the other hand, laws and regulations concerning care of individuals with cognitive disabilities concern all the things they must NOT be allowed to decide for themselves. Caretakers could be fired, or even prosecuted, for allowing them to run free.

In short, while our constitution properly guarantees equal protection of the laws, our laws do discriminate on the basis of real and genuine differences. We must re-learn to embrace REAL differences as an appropriate basis for discrimination, while avoiding the terribly destructive error of discriminating over irrelevant nonsense.