Systemic Discrimination: Theory and Measurement
Economics tends to deﬁne and measure discrimination as disparities stemming from the direct (causal) eﬀects of protected group membership. But work in other ﬁelds notes that such measures are incomplete, as they can miss important systemic (i.e. indirect) channels. For example, racial disparities in criminal records due to discrimination in policing can lead to disparate outcomes for equally-qualiﬁed job applicants despite a race-neutral hiring rule. We develop new tools for modeling and measuring both direct and systemic forms of discrimination. We deﬁne systemic discrimination as emerging from group-based diﬀerences in non-group characteristics, conditional on a measure of individual qualiﬁcation. We formalize sources of systemic discrimination as disparities in signaling technologies and opportunities for skill development. Notably, standard tools for measuring direct discrimination, such as audit or correspondence studies, cannot detect systemic discrimination. We propose a measure of systemic discrimination based on a novel decomposition of total discrimination—disparities that condition on underlying qualiﬁcation—into direct and systemic components. This decomposition highlights the type of data needed to measure systemic discrimination and guides identiﬁcation strategies in both observational and (quasi-)experimental data. We illustrate these tools in two hiring experiments. Our ﬁndings highlight how discrimination in one domain, due to either accurate beliefs or bias, can drive persistent disparities through systemic channels even when direct discrimination is eliminated.