The Mystery of Discrimination in Latin America
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The Mystery of Discrimination in Latin America

Conventional wisdom holds that Latin America is a highly discriminatory society. This belief is hardly surprising given the history of ethnic and class conflicts in the region and the plethora of anecdotal evidence reinforcing this notion. However, whereas it cannot be argued that many societies in the region do, in fact, discriminate, the crucial questions have barely been broached. Understanding the extent of such discrimination and exploring the channels through which it operates deserve special attention.

How widespread is discrimination in Latin America? The primary opinion survey in the region, Latinobarómetro, explores discriminatory perceptions for representative samples of the population of eighteen countries.1 As shown in figure 1, when individuals were asked in 2001 who they think suffers the most from discrimination, they consistently and overwhelmingly highlighted the poor, followed by indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants. This pattern is consistent across countries in the region. In all the countries surveyed, poverty is perceived as being the main driver of discrimination, with responses varying from 14 percent in the case of Panama to 49 percent in the case of Nicaragua. Figure 2 illustrates these results for the countries surveyed.

These results, however, are not entirely consistent with the answers to a similarly worded question asked only a few years later. Starting in 2004, the same Latinobarómetro survey asked Latin Americans why they think people [End Page 79]

Figure 1. Groups Affected by Discrimination in Latin America, 2001a Source: Latinobarómetro (2001). a. The figure reports responses to the following 2001 Latinobarómetro survey question: “From what you have known or heard, which groups do you think experience the most discrimination, or do you think that there is no discrimination?”
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Figure 1.

Groups Affected by Discrimination in Latin America, 2001a

Source: Latinobarómetro (2001).

a. The figure reports responses to the following 2001 Latinobarómetro survey question: “From what you have known or heard, which groups do you think experience the most discrimination, or do you think that there is no discrimination?”

in their country are not treated equally. One out of every three Latin Americans pointed to poverty as the basis for unequal treatment, but in a departure from the earlier poll, individuals did not identify ethnic and racial characteristics as the second and third top reasons for discrimination. Rather, they cited lack of education and lack of connections as the basis for unequal treatment. One interpretation of these results is that Latin Americans now consider economic factors more important than social factors in explaining unequal treatment, although responses vary by country. Figure 3 shows the ranking of reasons for the whole region, and figure 4 shows how the perceived reasons for unequal treatment vary from one country to another. While poverty is considered the number one cause of discrimination in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, lack of education tops the list of reasons in Guatemala. Lack of connections, which ranks third in the region overall, is viewed as the most important reason for unequal treatment in Mexico, Colombia, and Panama. [End Page 80]

Figure 2. Perceptions of Discrimination by Poverty, by Countrya Source: Latinobarómetro (2001). a. For each country, the figure reports that percentage of Latinobarómetro respondents in 2001 who think that poverty is the main reason that people are not treated equally.
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Figure 2.

Perceptions of Discrimination by Poverty, by Countrya

Source: Latinobarómetro (2001).

a. For each country, the figure reports that percentage of Latinobarómetro respondents in 2001 who think that poverty is the main reason that people are not treated equally.

Figure 3. Reasons for Discrimination in Latin America, 2004 and 2005a Source: Latinobarómetro (2004, 2005). a. The figure reports responses in 2004 and 2005 to the following Latinobarómetro survey question: “Of all the reasons for which people are not treated equally, which one affects you the most?”
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Figure 3.

Reasons for Discrimination in Latin America, 2004 and 2005a

Source: Latinobarómetro (2004, 2005).

a. The figure reports responses in 2004 and 2005 to the following Latinobarómetro survey question: “Of all the reasons for which people are not treated equally, which one affects you the most?”

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Figure 4. Reasons for Discrimination, by Countrya Source: Latinobarómetro (2005). a.–For each country, the figure reports responses to the following 2005 Latinobarómetro survey question: “Of all the reasons for which people are not treated equally, which one affects you the most?”
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Figure 4.

Reasons for Discrimination, by Countrya

Source: Latinobarómetro (2005).

a.–For each country, the figure reports responses to the following 2005 Latinobarómetro survey question: “Of all the reasons for which people are not treated equally, which one affects you the most?”

Skin color raises important concerns in Brazil and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia. The percentages of respondents who felt that everyone is treated equally in their country varies from 16 percent in Peru to 2 percent in Mexico, Paraguay, and Chile. The cases of Paraguay (35 percent) and Chile (25 percent) are interesting, as none of the reasons cited for unequal treatment are assigned...