This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a statute that was intended to end discrimination based on color, race, religion, sex and national origin, particularly in the areas of voting, education, public accommodations and employment.
Panelists at a Sept. 29 program reflecting on the Act discussed their perspectives. Part of the discussion centered on how the Act is being interpreted in light of today’s different social issues, such as LGBT rights. Although we have made significant and meaningful progress in some areas, much progress still needs to be made particularly with respect to criminal justice policy. The program was sponsored by the Public Interest Section, Civil Rights Committee, Criminal Justice Section, Women’s Rights Committee, Immigration Law Committee and the LGBT Rights Committee.
Featured speaker Alice Ballard, principal in the Law Office of Alice W. Ballard, offered a direct, powerful presentation, focusing on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and featured speaker Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, focused on racial profiling in policing and over-incarceration based on race.
Su Ming Yeh, managing attorney of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, presented an overview of the Civil Rights Act and Yeh’s historical analysis spanned several decades. Interestingly, President Johnson took on the Act, one of the longest filibusters in history. Southern Democrats were vehemently opposed to the Civil Rights Act. Sex as a protected class was not addressed until the very end, Yeh said. “Women were added to actually derail the Act, and laughter was actually heard when women were discussed,” she said.
Yeh’s historical analysis also touched on how the Act personally impacted her and her family. When her mother and her family were trying to find housing, and they were only known to the person showing the house over the telephone, they were cordially told to come and look at the house. Once they met in person, a very different tone and demeanor faced them once they saw they were Asian American.
Yeh spoke about voting rights that are similar across the states and the Voting Rights Act that is still in litigation. She ended her discussion with the importance of the Act because the Act became a model for other more modern acts, like the ADA. The Act also impacts current issues, such as gender discrimination and bias.
Ballard’s discussion of Title VII began with a powerful introduction – “Jim Crowe is like water, put up all the barriers you want against it and it is going to find its own way.” Although we desegregated the school system, a potential benefit, we created other not-so-beneficial unintended results. She said that we created a black middle class with a white flight to the suburbs. “What we are now left with is an embarrassing and shameful public school system.”
Title VII was used to attack class-wide industry practices, such as those that occurred in the steel and trucking industry. The most important case, according to Ballard, was Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, where Ann Hopkins was told she could not make partner unless she “walked more femininely, talked more femininely, wore more jewelry, and styled her hair.” This case laid the groundwork for bias and stereotyping and the standard theory that is used today. Once the Civil Rights Act was amended in 1991 and damages were made available, there was significant change. However, racism still plagues our country today.
Shuford focused his discussion on the criminal justice system and the bleak picture that still exists due to over-policing, over-incarceration and over-prosecution of the poor and people of color. Shuford illustrated with statistics the disproportionate number of black people who are “routinely stigmatized, harassed, humiliated, arrested and even killed due to over policing.” He said that the shooting and racism that occurred in Ferguson, Mo., could be “anywhere U.S.A.” The statistics paint a grim picture of our criminal justice policy. Shuford said “blacks are twice as likely to be stopped and searched, yet 60 percent less likely to be found to have drugs.”
Maureen M. Farrell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is principal in The Law Offices of Maureen M. Farrell.
This article originally appeared in Philadelphia Bar Reporter, November 2014.