What is Discrimination?
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed November 18, 2019
In plain English, to "discriminate" means to distinguish, single out, or make a distinction. In everyday life, when faced with more than one option, we discriminate in arriving at almost every decision we make. But in the context of civil rights law, unlawful discrimination refers to unfair or unequal treatment of an individual (or group) based on certain characteristics, including:
- Marital status
- National origin
- Religion, and
- Sexual orientation.
Table of Contents
- Lawful vs. Unlawful Discrimination
- Where Can Discrimination Occur?
- Anti-Discrimination Laws
- Get Help
Lawful vs. Unlawful Discrimination
Not all types of discrimination will violate federal and/or state laws that prohibit discrimination. Some types of unequal treatment are perfectly legal, and cannot form the basis for a civil rights case alleging discrimination. The examples below illustrate the difference between lawful and unlawful discrimination:
Example 1: Applicant 1, an owner of two dogs, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 1 is a dog owner, Landlord refuses to lease the apartment to her, because he does not want dogs in his building. Here, Landlord has not committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 1 based solely on her status as a pet owner. Landlord is free to reject apartment applicants who own pets.
Example 2: Applicant 2, an African American man, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 2 is an African American, Landlord refuses to lease the apartment to him, because he prefers to have Caucasian tenants in his building. Here, Landlord has committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 2 based solely on his race. Under federal and state fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, Landlord may not reject apartment applicants because of their race.
Where Can Discrimination Occur?
Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against members of protected groups (identified above) in a number of settings, including:
- Government benefits and services
- Health care services
- Land use / zoning
- Lending and credit
- Public accommodations (Access to buildings and businesses)
Most laws prohibiting discrimination, and many legal definitions of "discriminatory" acts, originated at the federal level through either:
- Federal legislation, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
- Other federal acts (supplemented by court decisions) prohibit discrimination in voting rights, housing, extension of credit, public education, and access to public facilities.
- Federal court decisions, like the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which was the impetus for nationwide racial desegregation of public schools. Other Supreme Court cases have shaped the definition of discriminatory acts like sexual harassment, and the legality of anti-discrimination remedies such as affirmative action programs.
Today, most states have anti-discrimination laws of their own which mirror those at the federal level. For example, in the state of Texas, Title 2 Chapter 21 of the Labor Code prohibits employment discrimination. Many of the mandates in this Texas law are based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law making employment discrimination unlawful.
Learn more about state-specific discrimination laws on our discrimination law legal answers page.
Municipalities within states (such as cities, counties, and towns) can create their own anti-discrimination laws or ordinances, which may or may not resemble the laws of the state itself. For example, a city may pass legislation requiring domestic partner benefits for city employees and their same-sex partners, even though no such law exists at the state level.
Get Legal Help from an Attorney
If you believe you have suffered a civil rights violation such as discrimination, the best place to start is to speak with an attorney experienced in discrimination law. Important decisions related to your case can be complicated -- including which laws apply to your situation, and who is responsible for the discrimination and any harm you suffered. An attorney will evaluate all aspects of your case and explain all options available to you, in order to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.
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