Discrimination is damaging and harmful, but it is not always illegal. In the case of unlawful discrimination, you have a right to take legal action. Talk to a lawyer experienced with discrimination cases for advice and guidance.

What is Discrimination?

Discrimination is not always bad or illegal. At a basic level, discrimination means to distinguish or single out something or someone. Discrimination is wrong when it involves unfair, unequal treatment of people based on certain characteristics.

In a legal sense, discrimination is unequal or different treatment for a person or group based on no legitimate reason.[1] For instance, if an employer passes over female employees for promotions, favoring men for those positions instead, there may be a case for discrimination. It is discrimination if the workers are similarly qualified, and the employer chooses who to promote based on gender.

What Are the Impacts of Discrimination?

Unfair treatment is problematic for many reasons. In the example of employment, the workers who are discriminated against lose new opportunities, career advancement, and higher salaries. People with disabilities may miss out on access to public spaces and othter resources if discriminated against. These are just a few examples.

According to experts, discrimination can also cause physical and mental health problems. For instance, it causes stress, anxiety, and other mental health symptoms. Even if you have not experienced direct discrimination, being part of a group regularly discriminated against triggers stress.[2]

Discrimination, and perceived discrimination, has also been linked with depression, obesity, high blood pressure, and substance abuse. The stress of discrimination is likely a big part of causing these physical health problems.[2]

Legal vs. Illegal Discrimination

Federal and state laws outline protected groups and characteristics. It is illegal to discriminate against people based on race, sex, religion, age, disability, or national origin in certain situations. If you are unsure whether a situation is illegal discrimination, a lawyer specializing in civil rights and discrimination law can clarify it for you.

For example, federal law does not include having a criminal record as a protected factor. Some states and cities do, however. Depending on the location, an employer may be able to reject a potential employee based solely on having a criminal record, regardless of their qualifications.

Who is Protected Against Discrimination?

Several federal laws protect specific groups or characteristics from discrimination:[3]

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Parental or family status
  • Pregnancy
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Gender
  • Race or color
  • Reprisal or retaliation

States also have laws that protect against discrimination and that guarantee civil rights. Federal laws supersede these but are minimal protections. Some states go above and beyond, protecting other groups, such as people who are overweight or obese or transgender individuals. Many cities also have strict anti-discrimination laws.

Where Does the Law Protect Against Discrimination?

Discrimination is outlawed in specific locations, settings, and situations. Different laws address these separately. For instance, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 specifically addresses discrimination in voting. Areas of protection under federal laws include:

  • Credit and lending
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Healthcare
  • Housing
  • Government services and benefits
  • Land use and zoning
  • Public accommodations and access
  • Transportation
  • Voting

How Do I Know if I Have Experienced Discrimination?

Understanding the laws and what constitutes unlawful discrimination is essential to know if you have been a victim. Not everyone has this knowledge, so it’s typical to be confused about your situation. A discrimination lawyer can clear it up for you. Reputable lawyers do not charge fees for an initial consultation, so feel free to contact someone to review the incident.

Here are just some examples and a few signs that you may be experiencing illegal discrimination:

  • You’re qualified for a job but not hired because of your age.
  • Your employer denied a promotion, citing your disability even though reasonable accommodations would allow you to do the new job.
  • A landlord denies your rental application for you and your same-sex partner.
  • During an interview, you are asked if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant soon.
  • A college does not provide you with accommodations for an exam when it falls on an important holiday in your religion.
  • The bus on your local route cannot accommodate your wheelchair.
  • People at work make jokes and derogatory comments about your home country.
  • A realtor discourages you from buying a home in a neighborhood because it is an exclusive community or not the right fit for you.

What Should I Do if I Experienced Discrimination?

The exact steps you should take after discrimination depends on the situation and where it occurred. For instance, workplace discrimination should be documented and reported to management or human resources. If your employer fails to resolve the situation, you can then file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

If you believe you have experienced discrimination at work or anywhere else, follow these steps:

  1. Document the incident.
    Keep a record of what happened, including your own recollections, what witnesses saw, emails, and other documents.
  2. Report to the appropriate person.
    At work, you should report the incident to management. You may need to report the incident to a city or government agency, the manager of a bank, or a real estate agency in other situations.
  3. Talk to a lawyer.
    You may be able to resolve the situation on your own, but a good outcome is more likely if you have a lawyer on your side.
  4. Resolve if possible.
    Your lawyer can help you negotiate with an employer or someone else responsible for the discrimination. You may be able to resolve the situation at this point without any legal action.
  5. Report to a government agency.
    If you cannot resolve it, report the incident to the appropriate government agency, such as the EEOC, your state civil rights commission, or the Department of Justice.
  6. File a lawsuit.
    For many cases of discrimination, you must file a claim with the government first. Then, you may be able to file a lawsuit to recover damages.

Discrimination is a serious issue. Many people suffer real harm and damages from workplace discrimination and other situations. If you are unsure what happened to you was illegal, talk to a discrimination lawyer for advice.

  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Discrimination.
    Retrieved from: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/discrimination
  2. American Psychological Association. (2019, October 31). Discrimination: What it is, and How to Cope.
    Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/discrimination
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, November 16). Types of Discrimination.
    Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/eeo/faqs/discrimination.htm