Discrimination by Default: How Racism Becomes Routine

Discrimination by Default: How Racism Becomes Routine

Discrimination by Default: How Racism Becomes Routine

Discrimination by Default: How Racism Becomes Routine


Much as we "select" computer settings by defaultreflexively, without thinking, and sometimes without realizing there are other options- we often discriminate by default as well. And just as default computer settings tend to become locked in or entrenched as the standard, discrimination by default creates a situation in which disparate outcomes are expected, accepted, and taken for granted. The killing of Amadou Diallo, racial disparities in medical care, the dominance of Whites and men in certain professions, and even the uneven media attention paid to crimes depending on their victims' race and class, all might be cases of discrimination by, or as, default.

Wang contends that, today, most discrimination occurs by default and not design, making legal prohibitions that focus on those who discriminate out of ill will inadequate to redress the largest share of modern discrimination. She draws on social psychology to detail three ways in which unconscious assumptions can lead to discrimination, showing how they play out in a range of everyday settings. Wang then demonstrates how these dynamics interact in medical care to produce an invisible, self-fulfilling, and self-perpetuating prophecy of racial disparity. She goes on to suggest ways in which institutions and individuals might recognize, interrupt, and override the discriminatory default.


Alex arrived at the restaurant a bit early to meet his friends Tony and Jacqueline, but he hoped to get a table, relax, and unwind with a drink while he waited. The hostess who greeted him told him that would not be possible, as the restaurant's policy was that all members of a party had to be present before the party could be seated. She offered to take his name and said she could seat his party once everyone had arrived. Although he was anxious to be seated and the restaurant was only half full, Alex reluctantly agreed to wait on the hard bench in the entryway until his friends arrived.

As he sat waiting, several other diners entered and were seated. A White couple walked in and told the hostess they would have a party of four, but their two friends would be arriving later. Alex watched in disbelief as the hostess smiled and immediately showed the couple to a table. By the time the hostess returned to her station, Alex was furious. He strode over to her and announced in a loud voice that she could remove his name from the waiting list; he wasn't about to lower himself by patronizing a restaurant that treated him like a second-class citizen because he was Black.

The hostess reacted with surprise and anger. She protested that she was not a racist and had not treated him any differently because of his race; she had seated the couple right away because they were “regulars” and she did not want to make them wait in . . .

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