The phrase “de facto” is Latin for “in fact.” It is used to describe commonly accepted practice which has no legal or official status. For example, English is the de facto language of Australia, meaning that it has no formal legal status, but most citizens speak English, and English is used on government documents. By contrast, something mandated or authorized by law is said to be “de jure,” or “in law.”
This phrase is used in a variety of ways, including politics, government, and sociology. Many people use the term to refer to situations of questionable legality or morality. For example, the United States endured decades of de facto racism after several laws were passed in an attempt to make racial prejudice illegal. Racism persisted so long in some regions of the United States because it had become common practice, and legislation alone was not enough to put an end to racism.
It is fairly common to see a de facto standard, a tradition which is followed without any legal basis. For example, many businesses have de facto hiring standards which are not explicitly stated, such as a preference for employees who look a certain way. In some cases, such a standard may be illegal, but because it has not been formalized, it is difficult to prosecute.
De facto standards often reflect commonly-held opinions about women, racial minorities, and the disabled. Because many people in a society may share these ideas, it can be difficult to identify patterns which suggest that a government or industry is using such a standard, making it hard to challenge the standard. In nations where laws are in place to prevent or reduce discrimination, many people are also very careful to avoid revealing the existence of a de facto standard. For example, if a business decides it does not want to hire women for a particular position, it will find legitimate excuses to deny the job applications of women so that it cannot be accused of discrimination.
Activists who fight discrimination often claim that de facto discrimination is the hardest to fight. De jure discrimination can be eliminated by re-writing or throwing out old laws, and creating new ones to address the changing face of society. However, when the letter of the law is not upheld by common practice, citizens may see little difference after a struggle to eliminate de jure discrimination.