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Perceiving Discrimination on the Job: Legal Consciousness, Workplace Context, and the Construction of Race Discrimination


  • An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2007 American Sociological Association annual meetings in New York. We thank Julie Kmec and Becky Pettit for providing comments on earlier drafts. Both authors contributed equally to this article; names are ordered alphabetically.

Please address correspondence to Elizabeth Hirsh, Department of Sociology, Cornell University, 323 Uris Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853; e-mail:; or Christopher J. Lyons, Department of Sociology, University of New Mexico, MSC05 3083, Albuquerque, NM 87131-1166; e-mail:


Despite the continued importance of discrimination for racial labor market inequality, little research explores the process by which workers name potentially negative experiences as race discrimination. Drawing on the legal consciousness literature and organizational approaches to employment discrimination, we assess the effect of social status, job characteristics, and workplace context on the likelihood that workers perceive race discrimination at work. Analyzing data from the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, we find that ascriptive status is associated with perceptions of discrimination, with African Americans, Hispanics, and women more likely to perceive racial discrimination, net of job and organizational controls. Results also suggest that workers with a greater sense of entitlement (as indicated by job authority, promotion experience, and union membership) and knowledge of legal entitlements (as indicated by education level and age) are more likely to perceive workplace racial discrimination. Other workplace conditions can signal fairness and decrease perceptions of racial bias, such as formalized screening practices and having nonwhite supervisors, whereas working among predominantly nonwhite coworkers increases the likelihood of perceiving discrimination. These findings suggest that personal attributions of discrimination vary across social groups and their environments, and demonstrate the importance of workplace context for understanding how individuals apply legal concepts, such as discrimination, to their experiences.