Adolescents in Discriminating Systems
Few aspects of adolescent life are as important as how adolescents address belonging to groups. Despite being a time when individuals seek to secure a sense of individual identity, the period of adolescence also is a time when people seek to fit in, be with others, and gain a sense of group identity. Adolescents are particularly sensitive about meaningfully belonging to groups. As a result, being seen or treated differently because of their association with a group can have dramatic effects. Similarly, so can the failure to belong. Because of this heightened sensitivity to group membership and its developmental significance to the adolescent period, group-based differential treatment necessarily plays a determinative role in adolescents’ everyday lives, development, and outcomes. Importantly, group-based differential treatment can lead to dramatic effects for reasons other than adolescents’ heightened sensitivities, as differential treatment can have dramatic effects on any group. Yet, the legal system does not directly concern itself with many forms of differential treatment; it generally concerns itself with inappropriate discrimination. This chapter details the types of discrimination that do and do not matter under the Constitution, as illustrated in cases involving biological sex, race, economic status, and immigration status. The focus is on understanding the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and explaining the nature and development of legal rules relating to it. One obvious rule is that discrimination occurs when the government differentiates among individuals based on a protected group status, such as prohibitions against discrimination based on race. A less obvious rule is that, in some instances, the legal system requires or permits differential treatment, even based on race. These legal rules address a fundamental tension: the need to treat everyone the same way as well as the need to treat some differently so that they can be in positions to be treated equally to others. Stated differently, contemporary equality jurisprudence seeks to discern whether and, if so, when to treat people differently so that they actually are treated the same way in terms of, for example, the ability to take advantage of opportunities or to not be inappropriately disadvantaged. In putting this discernment into practice, the legal system actually permits much more differential treatment than it prohibits, which makes important the need to understand more precisely what the legal system means by equality.