Divisiveness drains profits


  • Opinion
  • Saturday, 07 Oct 2017

Businessmen must understand that discrimination is bad for everybody

ONCE upon a time in America, some businesses had no problems seeing certain groups of people as no better than canines. In the vast collections of the Library of Congress, there’s a weathered sign that’s said to be distributed to members of a Dallas, Texas-based trade body called the Lonestar Restaurant Association.

Meant to be displayed in the windows or on the doors of eateries, the sign says, “No dogs, negroes, Mexicans.”

It was part of an exhibition that opened at the library three years ago to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

On the exhibition website, the library explains that laws mandating the separation of the races in “practically every aspect of public life” were introduced in the southern United States beginning in the 1890s.

“Water fountains, restaurants, theatres, restrooms, stores, buses, trains, workplaces, and other public facilities were typically

designated with ‘White Only’ and ‘Colored’ signs,” says the library, adding that these so-called Jim Crow laws existed until the 1960s.

It was the civil rights movement, of course, that forced this change and reshaped American society. Peaking in the 1950s and 1960s, the struggle of the African Americans to secure their basic rights as US citizens left a monumental legacy.

One of the movement’s chief accomplishments is the Civil Rights Act, the subject of the Library of Congress exhibition. The legislation outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex or national origin in specific matters such as voting, public facilities, public education and federally-funded programmes.

The Act affects business in the US in a big way because it also prohibits such discrimination in employment and something called “places of public accommodation”. These places include hotels, eateries and places of exhibition or entertainment (for example, cinemas, theatres, concert halls and stadiums).

In other words, it’s illegal for operators of these businesses to welcome only customers of a certain ethnicity or faith, and turn away all others.

Addressing discrimination against the disabled, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also refers to places of public accommodations and, in fact, has a broader scope.

The ADA has 12 categories of public accommodations. Among these are stores, restaurants, bars, service establishments, theatres, hotels, recreational facilities, private museums and schools, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and shopping malls.

In the context of the ADA, says the US Department of Justice, public accommodations are businesses that provide goods or services to the public. “Nearly all types of businesses that serve the public are included in the 12 categories, regardless of the size of the business or the age of their buildings,” adds the department.

These two pieces of legislation make it clear that while there’s generally a lot of economic freedom in the US, there’s limited room for businesses to arbitrarily reject potential customers and employees.

Naturally, universal acceptance is hard to come by and these anti-discrimination laws (and the principles behind them) have been tested many times over the years.

In recent times, a number of states in the US have considered controversial changes in the law that allow individuals to refuse service on the basis that it would otherwise burden their free exercise of religion.

Critics have argued that this would lead to discrimination stemming from religious beliefs, such as businesses choosing not to accept gay customers because the owners have religious objections to homosexuality. In the worst-case scenario, businessmen and others may use the proposed provisions to discriminate against anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs or religious practices.

So far, such amendments have come into effect only in a few states. This perhaps shows that most Americans are opposed to the idea of businesses closing their doors to people because of what they are, and not what they do.

And maybe many US businessmen too see the wisdom in spurning discrimination.

It’s not at all a difficult argument to follow. The economy thrives on inclusiveness and diversity. Try pushing for growth in the face of divisiveness and suspicion. Which nation can expect to fare well when some sections of its population are consistently denied equal treatment?

“Institutionalised discrimination is bad for people and for societies. Widespread discrimination is also bad for economies,” World Bank president Jim Yong Kim wrote in a 2014 op-ed piece for the Washington Post.

The trouble with discrimination is that it can be a creeping disease. And Malaysia isn’t immune to it.

Because we don’t have anti-discrimination laws like those in the US, the fight here against discrimination depends largely on us resisting our worst impulses and focusing on the big picture.

The business community has a major part to play in this. Hopefully, they’ll always put the long-term future of the nation ahead of the lure of short-term gains.

Executive editor Errol Oh wonders if everybody ought to be afflicted with racial colour blindness.


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