Remember the Government’s Duty to Fight for Civil Rights and Racial Justice

Kash Jain ’24

Opinion Editor

Sixty years ago this year, following a monumental effort by civil rights activists, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The following year, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), continuing a flurry of legislation to enshrine equal protection and combat racial discrimination in the public and private spheres.

Over the following decades, Congress would amend both laws to expand their scope and strengthen the protections that they offer. The Civil Rights Act has become a cornerstone of modern protections against discrimination in public accommodations and the workplace. The protective capacity of this law has largely persisted and, in some instances, expanded. This was the case with the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, in which it held that employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

At the same time, however, there has been backsliding on civil rights, including those that are meant to be protected by these two laws. Some of this has happened at the Supreme Court, where rulings in Shelby County v. Holder and Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee have limited what the government can do to defend voting rights and empowered states to continue to limit voting rights. Inconsistent enforcement and more conservative approaches by the Department of Justice, both intentional and otherwise, have also contributed to this; the Trump Administration sought to restrict certain prohibitions so that they would only cover intentional discrimination. This move ultimately went nowhere, but the Department of Justice under Attorney General Bill Barr also did little to defend voting rights and even backed away from suing over unnecessarily restrictive voting laws. Congress’s failure to take action to combat racial gerrymandering or attacks on voting rights has also exacerbated the problem.

Fundamentally, the conversation about the government’s role in protecting the rights of marginalized groups, particularly Black Americans, has shifted. It’s true that rights-focused arguments are not as persuasive as they once were, and that there is a significant and persistent effort to limit voting rights across the nation based on unsubstantiated fears of massive voter fraud. However, perhaps there has also been a decline in imagination and a willingness to respond; despite loud calls for federal action, there are many who do not see a significant governmental interest or role in fighting for these core rights, such as freedom from discrimination and the right to vote. There are some who genuinely believe that the government does not have a role in limiting private discrimination, and there is also a persistent belief that racism is somehow solved and that there is no need to continue to combat it. The general elimination of explicitly discriminatory laws (at least on the basis of race; it would be rather bold to suggest that explicit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is not something that exists within both state and federal policy) has led some to believe that the issue is gone. To many legislators, the idea that racism may persist without an explicit targeting of people of color seems like a myth. The data on policing and voting restrictions, the evidence that a lot of policies have a disparate impact on Black Americans, the simple reality that a history of marginalization and segregation is not simply undone because the practices are no longer mandated by law — there is evidence, undoubtedly, but some simply do not see it. If they do, they do not think there is anything that the government can or should do about it.

There is no doubt that nongovernmental organizations and the general public can act to support civil rights. Groups like the NAACP and ACLU have played an instrumental role by securing legal victories, especially in equal protection cases, that have protected and expanded legal protections for marginalized communities. After all, it was Thurgood Marshall, as President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who defeated the asinine “separate but equal” legal fiction. Activists and the groups they led made the charge to end explicitly discriminatory policies and push Congress to take action. But, fundamentally, the government has the most power to determine both its policies and the lines that define rights enforcement. Judicial decisions and mass mobilization have power, but the ability of the state to make and enforce the law in response is necessary to secure these rights. Eisenhower and JFK used their power as president to address resistance to desegregation, clearly helping to secure the rights of those who were being deprived of them, but they and other presidents of the era have been criticized for failing to take enough action to ensure that the Court’s ruling in Brown and broader desegregation were followed. Civil rights legislation was passed because the calls of millions were heard, finally, by the receptive ears of Lyndon Johnson and congressional leaders who were willing to fight. Government action is frequently necessary to allow positive change, especially on an issue like civil rights where there needs to be protection for those who have been deprived of their rights and a response to resistance. 

Race was intrinsic to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The basic concept of freedom from discrimination may not involve race, but these laws were created with the goal of defending the rights of people of color, especially Black Americans. This nation had failed for centuries to uphold a value espoused in its Declaration of Independence — that all men are created equal — both within its democracy and outside it. Finally, its government took action to realize that value. Decades later, while much progress has been made, enforcement and action on both voting rights and antidiscrimination protections are not what they could be. There is an innate duty within the American system, a basic expectation that the government acts to defend the rights of all of its people. Far too many of the political leaders in this nation have forgotten that duty, but it certainly is worth remembering, as it could and should inform action at every level.

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