A recognition of economic discrimination began in the British Railway Clauses Consolidation Act of 1845, which prohibited a common carrier from charging one person more for carrying freight than was charged to another customer for the same service. In nineteenth-century English and American common law, discrimination was characterized as improper distinctions in economic transactions; in addition to the above issue in the British Railway Clauses, a hotelier capriciously refusing to give rooms to a particular patron would constitute economic discrimination. These early laws were designed to protect against discrimination from Protestants who might discriminate against Catholics, or Christians who might discriminate against Jews.
By the early twentieth century, economic discrimination was broadened to include biased or unequal terms against other companies or competing companies. In the United States the Robinson-Patman Act (1936), which prevents sellers of commodities in interstate commerce from discriminating in price between purchasers of goods of like grade and quality, was designed to prevent vertically integrated trusts from driving smaller competitors out of the market through economies of scale.
It was not until 1941, when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order forbidding discrimination in employment by a company working under a government defense contract, that economic discrimination took on the overtones it has today, which is discrimination against minorities. By 1960, anti-trust laws and interstate commerce laws had effectively regulated inter-corporate discrimination so problematic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the problem of discrimination on an economic basis against minorities had become widespread.