Protecting Minority Rights

 

 
Democracy 

Papers

By Tinsley Yarbrough

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
                         -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
                            March on Washington Speech, August, 1963

Democracy Papers

The framers of the U.S. Constitution left to future generations resolution of the slavery issue, and the Civil War and Reconstruction provided only temporary relief from racial discrimination for former slaves and their descendants. By the mid-1950s, however, the U.S. Supreme Court had begun to subject laws that discriminate on the basis of a person's race, color, or national origin to strict judicial scrutiny, prohibiting virtually all forms of government-based racial discrimination.

Congress, too, began to outlaw public and private racial discrimination in voting, employment, public accommodations, housing, and federally funded programs. Later, the high Court subjected laws based on gender to heightened scrutiny also, while Congress not only banned sex discrimination in a variety of fields but also forbade unequal treatment based on disability.

Debates over expanding concepts of equality have formed some of the most painful, yet profound, episodes in U.S. history. Except perhaps in the most homogeneous societies, the fair treatment of minorities is one of a nation's most fundamental and vexing responsibilities. There is no way that a society can treat all persons identically, yet fulfill its legitimate functions. Governments are regularly obliged to draw lines in their laws, dividing or classifying people into separate groups, and treating members of one group more or less favorably than persons in another group. Tax rates that vary according to income levels and minimum-age qualifications for voting or getting a license to drive an automobile are common examples of such regulations. So long as they serve lawful and substantial social interests, this kind of classification is considered legitimate and citizens are reasonably expected to obey.

By contrast, policies that distinguish among groups of people on the basis of race, national origin, ethnic background, gender, religious belief, or related factors seem inherently irrelevant to governmental goals reasonable persons consider legitimate. When governments treat certain people less favorably than others based on birth characteristics or other considerations that seem to bear little relationship to the benefits people should receive, or the burdens they should be expected to endure, suspicions arise that the officials in question are acting out of sheer prejudice and stereotypical assumptions about individual worth and behavior rather than pursuing clearly lawful public goals.

Beyond these principles, however, the degree to which group classifications are perceived as unfair and thus condemned depends largely on prevailing social attitudes. When target groups constitute a numerical minority of a society's population, possess distinctive physical characteristics or life styles others find strange and unappealing, have long been saddled with governmentally sanctioned disabilities, or embrace unorthodox political or religious beliefs and practices, social resistance to change is powerful and full assimilation of these groups into the society may appear insurmountable.

Mistreatment of minorities and other groups is not confined to authoritarian systems with little or no respect for the rule of law. In the 1960s, the British, despite their long tradition of commitment to democratic principles and fundamental fairness, were obliged to confront their treatment of nonwhite immigrant populations. The historic struggle over slavery and its vestiges, moreover, has obviously been among the most profound legal and social developments in the American experience.

Even when a nation decides to end discrimination against racial minorities or other disadvantaged groups, questions must then be resolved regarding the appropriate mode of relief. Should anti-discrimination policies bind government officials alone? Or should they also extend to private persons and institutions? Is it sufficient to end the discrimination at issue? Or is it necessary to correct the effects of past inequities through, for example, preferential treatment for members of disadvantaged groups seeking employment, position advancement, college admission, and other benefits? Does past inequality, in short, create future entitlement? If so, should the benefits be limited to persons who have actually suffered past discrimination or extended to all members of a particular group?

Discrimination: an affront to a democratic society

Virtually throughout its history, the United States has been obliged to confront these sorts of questions in resolving a variety of issues affecting minorities and other disadvantaged groups -- from the painful struggle over slavery and its remnants, to the nation's expansion of equality principles to gender and other non-racial forms of discrimination, to attempts to define and assure an equal competitive field for disabled Americans, to recent efforts to include sexual orientation among the privacy rights subject to legal protection.

Several basic themes have permeated each of these movements. First is the notion that certain forms of discrimination are an affront to the concept of an open, democratic society. President John F. Kennedy eloquently evoked this principle in his 1963 address to the nation, following the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Alabama over the opposition of Alabama's segregationist governor George Wallace. "I hope," the president observed that evening, "that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened."

Later that summer, Martin Luther King, Jr., the foremost civil rights leader of his era, movingly voiced another basic refrain of the equality movement in his "I Have a Dream" speech climaxing that year's civil rights march on Washington. Speaking before a crowd of 200,000 at the memorial to President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery, Dr. King decried the unfairness of a society in which public policy and private practice are based on stereotypical assumptions about human worth. "I have a dream," King proclaimed, "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Finally, movements to protect minorities and other disadvantaged groups have been motivated and gained support through practical considerations of self-interest. If a society is permitted to discriminate against one class of people, what is to prevent it from giving force to its other prejudices? Many citizens may realize that discrimination against members of one race, religion, ethnic background, or unorthodox practice or orientation could lead to attacks on other target groups.

The campaign against slavery

Influenced by such concerns, the United States has gradually expanded the types of discrimination the nation will no longer tolerate, attacking them in the judicial, legislative, and executive arenas, as well as in the court of public opinion. The campaign against slavery and its vestiges has been the most frustrating and protracted of those campaigns. When the nation celebrated the 200th anniversary of the adoption of its Constitution in the 1980s, Thurgood Marshall, chosen in 1967 as the first African American ever to serve on the nation's Supreme Court, asserted that persons of his race had little reason to applaud enactment of the original Constitution. Instead, said Marshall, African Americans should reserve their praise for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the Civil War and Reconstruction-era bans on slavery and discrimination in voting and in other areas of national life.

Arguably, Justice Marshall was right in many respects. The original Constitution of 1787 had provided, after all, that slaves would be counted as only three-fifths a person in determining each state's population and thus the size of its delegation to the House of Representatives, the lower house of the national Congress. The Constitution also included a provision forbidding passage of any amendment or statute restricting the importation of slaves until 1808, and it guaranteed slaveholders the return of fugitive slaves, even those who had fled to states where slavery was prohibited by law. On the eve of the nation's bloody Civil War over slavery and related issues, moreover, the Supreme Court held in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that African Americans, free or slave, were not U.S. citizens; nor were they entitled to the rights the Constitution guaranteed citizens.

After the Civil War, Congress passed and the states ratified a series of amendments to the Constitution aimed at ensuring the full rights of citizenship for the former slaves freed during the war by President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The key provision of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, states: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Passage and early enforcement of these Reconstruction amendments brought only a partial and temporary end to discrimination against minorities in the United States. Under its powers to enforce the amendments' provisions, Congress passed a number of significant civil rights statutes. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, for example, prohibited racial segregation or discrimination in public transportation, hotels, and theaters. But even the Congress that passed the 14th Amendment authorized segregation in the schools of Washington, D.C., the nation's capital. As national enthusiasm for Reconstruction subsided in the 1870s and 1880s, moreover, the Supreme Court narrowly construed or struck down as unconstitutional these civil rights laws Congress had adopted.

The rise and fall of segregation laws

The post-Reconstruction Supreme Court also conferred its mantle of approval on segregation laws. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court endorsed the authority of states to require racial segregation in railroad cars and other public and private facilities, so long as the segregated accommodations were "equal." Segregation laws, the majority concluded, affected blacks and whites equally, inflicting no stigma of inferiority on either race. A state could also reasonably decide that such laws were necessary to promote public peace and order.

Only Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former Kentucky slaveholder, dissented. Harlan scorned the majority's notion that segregation laws treated members of the dominant white race and the former slaves equally, and declared in his opinion that under the Reconstruction amendments, "our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law." The Court's complicity in permitting states to maintain African Americans in a state of quasi-slavery, Harlan prophesied, would "in time prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case."

For half a century after Plessy, "separate but equal" remained the law of the land, and only the most blatant forms of racial discrimination met occasional defeat in the courts. In the 1930s and 1940s, however, the Supreme Court began to cast a more critical eye on segregation laws and related forms of racial discrimination. The famous Footnote Four to Justice Harlan Fiske Stone's opinion for the Court in United States v. Carolene Products Co. (1938) included among laws potentially subject to close judicial review "prejudice against discrete and insular minorities." Although the Court cited military necessity in upholding World War II sanctions against Japanese Americans, Justice Hugo L. Black emphasized for the majority that "all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect." In its most significant rulings of that period, the Court began to chip away at segregation in graduate and professional education. Sweatt v. Painter (1950) not only concluded that a recently created state law school for blacks was inferior to the all-white University of Texas law school, but also ruled that in determining whether segregated schools are equal, trial courts must take into account intangible as well as tangible factors -- "those qualities [such as institutional reputation] which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school."

Bolstered by the stringency of the Court's interpretation of the separate but equal doctrine in this case, Thurgood Marshall, who was then a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other civil rights lawyers decided it was time to challenge the doctrine itself, especially its assumption thatsegregated facilities could be equal. Following extensive litigation, the Supreme Court, on May 17, 1954, embraced that position. Attendance at schools segregated by law, Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded for a unanimous tribunal in Brown v. Board of Education and companion cases, generated feelings of inferiority in minority children that adversely affected their ability to learn. Education in such schools thus could never be equal and consistent with the requirements of the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" guarantee. In a second unanimous ruling, Brown II, the following year, Chief Justice Warren instructed the lower courts and school boards to proceed with "all deliberate speed" to implement the desegregation of public schools.

Before Chief Justice Warren's retirement in 1969, the Supreme Court and lower courts had also struck down segregation in many other fields of national life, including a Virginia state law prohibiting interracial marriage. Under Chief Justices Warren Burger (1969-86) and William H. Rehnquist (1986-), the Supreme Court has approved broad remedial powers for judges in school desegregation suits, including court-ordered busing of students to assure integration of schools in racially segregated neighborhoods, and the imposition of racial quotas for student bodies and staff. The justices have drawn a sharp distinction, however, between de jure (official) segregation and de facto segregation (resulting only from segregated housing patterns), holding that the latter is not prohibited by the Constitution. A majority has also ordered trial courts to lift desegregation decrees once substantial compliance has been achieved toward converting a racially dual school system into a unitary system. Finally, the Court has limited the reach of the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" guarantee to policies that have a discriminatory intent, not merely a racially disparate impact.

While the U.S. court system in many ways took the lead in achieving racial equality, the White House and Congress have also erected significant safeguards against such discrimination. In the wake of national repulsion over violent encounters between police and civil rights marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, the Kennedy administration proposed far-reaching civil rights legislation that President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through Congress following President Kennedy's 1963 assassination. Enacted under congressional authority to regulate interstate commerce and enforce the provisions of the 14th Amendment, the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbade racial and related forms of discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and federally funded programs. Application of the last provision did more than any court order to hasten the desegregation of public schools. Following violence against voting rights marchers in Alabama, Congress next enacted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, barring literacy tests and other voter tests in states with a history of discrimination in voter registration and requiring them to secure "pre-clearance" from federal officials before enacting new election laws. The 1965 statute led to huge increases in African-American voter registration in Southern states and a corresponding decrease in the use of racist appeals in the political arena. Through the 1968 Fair Housing Act, moreover, Congress moved to eliminate discrimination in most housing transactions.

The rights of all minorities

African Americans, of course, have not been the only target of discrimination in the United States. The history of the nation's treatment of Native Americans has been equally regrettable. For years, Congress and the courts promoted Western expansion at the expense of Indian property rights, confiscating their lands and isolating them in often poor living conditions on reservations.

But Indians were eventually given citizenship and the right to vote. Beginning in the 1960s, moreover, Indian civil rights groups mobilized, winning important victories with respect to hunting, fishing, and land rights, including protection for burial grounds and other sacred sites. In an important 1990 case, however, the Supreme Court refused to extend meaningful protection to some tribes' ritual use of peyote, concluding that religious practices were obliged to conform to religiously neutral criminal laws, including drug regulations.

The diverse Hispanic-American populations have had similar difficulty becoming assimilated into American life. Language barriers and national concerns over illegal immigration, particularly from Mexico, have made Hispanics likely targets of discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Spanish, moreover, has been the principal target of the movement to make English the nation's official language, but Hispanic Americans, like other U.S. minority groups, have also made progress in recent years. In 1982, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas policy excluding undocumented children of illegal immigrants from free public schooling, with the justices emphasizing the importance of an education to a child's future development.

While not a numerical minority of the nation's population, American women were, like those in most countries, traditionally subjected to a variety of disabilities based on assumptions about gender. Prior to the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, the courts routinely upheld state laws denying women the right to vote. A number of early decisions sustained laws prohibiting women from practicing law, medicine, or certain other professions. Indeed, as late as 1961, the Supreme Court upheld a Florida law excluding women from jury service unless they specifically expressed a desire to serve. Sex, however, would appear little more relevant than race as an appropriate basis for government distribution of benefits and burdens. Like African Americans, women were also long systematically excluded from the political process and thus the opportunity to exert control over their own destinies.

Based on such considerations, Congress included gender among the forbidden forms of employment discrimination covered by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 barred schools receiving federal funds from discriminating against women students. Under pressure from the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other groups that same year, Congress proposed to the state legislatures for their ratification the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), providing that "[e]quality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex," as well as conferring enforcement powers on Congress. Ultimately, the ERA failed to win the approval of the required number of states, and the Supreme Court has generally refused to equate gender classifications with those based on race. In 1971, however, the Court struck down a sexually discriminatory law on "equal protection" grounds for the first time, and a few years later, a majority of the Court concluded that laws based on gender were "quasi-suspect" and would be upheld as valid only if they were substantially related to important governmental interests. Since women alone can become pregnant, the controversial abortion right recognized in Roe v. Wade (1973) is also considered a safeguard against gender-based discrimination by many women, as well as a guarantee to individual privacy.

The United States has generally been more reluctant to forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation or to recognize the right of consenting adults to engage in homosexual relationships. A number of cities, counties, or states have included sexual preference among forbidden forms of classification, and a few have gone so far as to recognize gay marriages. In Romer v. Evans (1996), a 6-3 Supreme Court majority overturned on equal protection grounds a state constitutional amendment that banned all current and future regulations protecting persons from discrimination based on sexual preference. Although declining to declare homosexuals a specially protected class, the Court condemned the amendment as a forbidden state attempt to relegate homosexuals to the status of second-class citizens.

In 1971, the Burger Court declared alienage -- the legal status of being an illegal immigrant -- constitutionally suspect, promising to subject laws that differentiate between U.S. citizens and non-citizens to strict judicial review. Later decisions struck down a number of laws extending public benefits to citizens only. At the same time, the justices have made clear that federal enactments distinguishing citizens from aliens were entitled to greater deference than their state counterparts. They also recognized an exception to the general proposition of equal treatment for citizens and non-citizens, upholding a number of regulations that limited public employment to citizens alone.

Given the general relationship between advancing age and the performance of job-related duties, the Supreme Court has refused to label age classifications for employment even "quasi-suspect." Not surprisingly, in view of the growing political influence of the elderly, Congress, however, has enacted a number of safeguards against age discrimination. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, for example, includes age among the forbidden forms of employment discrimination.

Since World War II, veterans and other disabled Americans have lobbied Congress for protection against discrimination based on handicap. In 1990, a coalition committed to such legislation convinced Congress to adopt the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Defining a disabled person as someone with a physical or mental impairment that limits one of more "life activities," the law guarantees those covered access to public facilities, employment opportunities, and communications services, while obliging employers and others to make some adjustments necessary to assure compliance with the law's goals. The ADA has gone a long way toward reducing obstacles disabled persons confront in employment, education, and other settings. A number of Supreme Court rulings, however, have narrowly construed its provisions. In a 1999 case, for example, a majority concluded that the ADA did not force an airline to hire nearsighted pilots even though their handicap was correctable.

The debate over affirmative action

The Burger and Rehnquist Courts have also confronted a discrimination issue the Warren Court had not been obliged to confront -- the vexatious debate over "affirmative action." In an effort to remedy the effects of past bias against racial minorities and women in employment and higher education, government agencies and universities since the 1960s have established programs extending varying degrees of preference to minorities and women in admission, employment, and advancement decisions. Supporters of such programs have contended that they are temporary measures to assure fair treatment for members of groups historically subject to purposeful discrimination and to hasten the creation of a truly integrated society. The defenders of affirmative action emphasized, moreover, that when white men, the alleged victims of such programs, charged "reverse discrimination," this established group could hardly be compared with African Americans and other groups long subjected to mistreatment based on their race or color, and thus now entitled to special judicial protection. In addition to arguing that affirmative action programs constituted unconstitutional "reverse discrimination," critics pointed out that affirmative action ran counter to the concept of a "color-blind" Constitution, violated the principle of advancement based on merit, aggravated racial hostilities, and perhaps generated feelings of inferiority in those they were designed to help.

The Supreme Court's reaction to lawsuits challenging affirmative action programs has been mixed. In its first major case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Court confronted a quota system under which 16 of the 100 first-year seats at a state medical school were set aside for minority applicants. Justice Lewis Powell, who delivered the principal opinion in the case, played a truly pivotal role in the Court's decision. Speaking for himself and four other justices, Powell struck down the challenged quota. All racial classifications, the justice concluded, were subject to strict judicial scrutiny regardless of the race affected; and no compelling interest could support an admissions policy based on race alone. Powell and another set of four justices also held, however, that a state's interest in securing a diverse student body was sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race along with other factors in admissions decisions.

In Steelworkers v. Weber, decided the next year, a Supreme Court majority upheld the joint decision of a company and its workers' union to award 50 percent of certain positions to minorities until the minority percentage of such workers approximated the minority portion of the area labor force. Brian Weber, the white worker challenging the company quota, argued primarily that it violated the anti-employment discrimination provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Court majority concluded, however, that the legislation was not intended to cover a company's voluntary decision to impose a racial quota as a means of correcting the effects of past employment discrimination in an area.

For the balance of Chief Justice Burger's tenure, the Court both upheld and invalidated a variety of affirmative action measures. And in Fullilove v. Klutznick (1980), a decision upholding a congressional statute that earmarked a percentage of federal public works funds for minority businesses, the justices made clear that such federal affirmative action programs were entitled to greater judicial deference than their state and local counterparts. Under Chief Justice Rehnquist, the justices initially embraced this position of the Burger Court. But in Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena (1995), a majority held that both federal and state arrangements were to be subjected to the same degree of strict judicial review.

Recent Court opposition to affirmative action has also extended to the election process. In Shaw v. Hunt (1996) and other rulings, the Court allowed white voters to challenge so-called majority-minority congressional districts from which members of the U.S. House of Representatives are elected. Under pressure from the Justice Department following the 1990 national census, several states had created districts in which African Americans or Hispanics constituted a voting majority; in these districts, minority candidates stand a better chance of being elected to Congress. In one sense, the Court has favored these special districts by upholding the constitutionality of 1982 amendments to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These amendments say state election laws are invalid not only if they have a discriminatory intent, but also if they have the effect of diluting the opportunity for minority voters to elect candidates of their choice. But a narrow Supreme Court majority has also concluded that majority-minority districts are unconstitutional if drawn with the predominantly racial purpose of assuring the election of minority candidates.

The credo of individual equality

Through judicial decisions, congressional statutes, executive enforcement, and changing public attitudes, American society has steadily evolved toward recognizing minority rights in law. The United States has largely banished the more blatant inequities African-Americans and other historically disadvantaged groups were long forced to endure. We are much closer to the day when Justice Harlan's resounding dissent in the 1896 Plessy decision rings substantially true: "In view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here."

The fight to end discrimination against minorities in the United States has taken place primarily in courts of law and in Congress and state legislatures. These efforts have proven successful for two reasons. One is the rule of law, and the abiding belief by the American people that even if individuals or groups do not agree with the conclusion of the courts or legislatures in establishing policy, citizens are bound to obey this policy. If they disagree with a policy or law, they lobby the legislatures and sue in the courts, rather than rampaging in the streets.

The second reason is that the American civic religion, as embodied in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and a long tradition of legislatures and courts, holds that all persons are created equal, and are entitled to equal protection under the law. Even if individual Americans do not like particular groups because of their skin color, their lifestyles, or their language, the widespread credo of individual equality forces Americans to confront their prejudices. Although the nation is still not free from its history of discrimination against certain groups, it is publicly committed eventually to ending all vestiges of racial and other forms of prejudice.

While these two beliefs -- in the rule of law and individual equality -- may be closely related to the U.S. historical experience, the general rule is applicable everywhere: Individuals must be treated equally under law. If not, then a nation is courting civil strife.

For Additional Reading

Charles A. Lofgren, The Plessy Case (Oxford, 1987)

Richard F. Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality (Knopf, 1976)

J. Harvie Wilkinson, III, From Brown to Bakke (Oxford, 1979)

Deborah Rhode, Justice and Gender (Harvard, 1989)

Andrew Kull, The Color-Blind Constitution (Harvard, 1994)

About the Author:
Tinsley E. Yarbrough is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Political Science at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. He is the author of books on several jurists, including Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black and the two justices (grandfather and grandson) named John Marshall Harlan. His most recent books are The Rehnquist Court and the Constitution (Oxford, 2000) and The Burger Court: Justices, Rulings and Legacy (ABC-CLIO, 2001).