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July 2, 2014 Off

Thoughts on the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act


by Abra­ham H. Fox­man
National Direc­tor of the Anti-Defamation League

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in The Huff­in­g­ton Post on July 2, 2014

Fifty years ago today, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don Baines John­son signed into law the land­mark Civil Rights Act of 1964. With the stroke of a pen, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment blot­ted out “sep­a­rate but equal,” put the power of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice behind deseg­re­ga­tion of pub­lic schools, and laid the foun­da­tion for racial, reli­gious and gen­der equal­ity in the workplace.

Despite the enor­mity of the change it ush­ered in, Rev. Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. hailed the leg­is­la­tion not as a vic­tory but as the “dawn of a new hope” and a “cool serene breeze in a long hot sum­mer” of racial oppres­sion. Dr. King rec­og­nized that the law did not mark the end of the strug­gle, but the begin­ning of fun­da­men­tal change.

A half-century later, the Civil Rights Act still stands as both a sig­nal achieve­ment and a reminder of the work that lies ahead for the attain­ment of true and last­ing equal­ity. The law dis­man­tled the edi­fice of “sep­a­rate but equal” in its most odi­ous form.

Today, the notion of a “Col­ored Only” drink­ing foun­tain seems alien and unthink­able. The Civil Rights Act changed more than the law; it changed atti­tudes. The recent down­fall of L.A. Clip­pers owner Don­ald Ster­ling demon­strates that the strongest enforcer of civil rights remains the court of pub­lic opinion.

In spite of the great progress that has already been achieved and the poten­tial for more, the promise of the Civil Rights Act has yet to be fully real­ized. The law autho­rized the Attor­ney Gen­eral to sue pub­lic schools for fail­ing to heed the charge of Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion to deseg­re­gate “with all delib­er­ate speed.” Today, an esti­mated 74 per­cent of African-American stu­dents and 79 per­cent of Latino stu­dents attend majority-minority schools.

Edu­ca­tion equity remains largely elu­sive. Less than one-third of schools serv­ing the most African Amer­i­can and Latino stu­dents offer cal­cu­lus. One-quarter of those schools do not even offer alge­bra II, 60 per­cent have no physics classes, and one-third do not offer chem­istry classes of any kind. Sixty years after Brown and fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, the work to close the edu­ca­tion equity gap continues.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act required employ­ers to pro­vide male and female work­ers equal pay for equal work. But a sub­stan­tial pay gap per­sists. The first piece of leg­is­la­tion signed into law by Pres­i­dent Obama–the Lilly Led­bet­ter Fair Pay Act–makes it eas­ier for women to secure back-pay when they suf­fer years of unequal com­pen­sa­tion. In April, how­ever, another bill would have banned com­pa­nies from retal­i­at­ing against women for seek­ing equal pay. It was blocked in the Sen­ate. And, in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court made it harder for female work­ers to band together to sue their employer for unequal pay, mak­ing it nearly impos­si­ble for women to wage costly lit­i­ga­tion bat­tles on their own.

For mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity, who are not explic­itly included in the Civil Rights Act, mon­u­men­tal change is afoot. Today, in most states, work­ers can still be fired or denied a job sim­ply for being gay. But in the com­ing days, we hope and expect Pres­i­dent Obama will amend an exist­ing exec­u­tive order bar­ring employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion by fed­eral con­trac­tors to add sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity to the list of pro­tected categories–a move that will extend work­place pro­tec­tions to approx­i­mately twenty per­cent of the nation’s work­force. The order could pave the way for leg­is­la­tion that would pro­hibit employ­ers from dis­crim­i­nat­ing against LGBT individuals.

Dr. King famously said, “The arc of the moral uni­verse is long, but it bends towards jus­tice.” The Civil Rights Act changed the face of the nation, bend­ing the arc sharply on July 2, 1964.

But much work remains. On the 50-year anniver­sary of its pas­sage, let us reded­i­cate our­selves to the task of build­ing a fairer, more just society.

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April 9, 2014 1

Congress Must Follow President Obama’s Lead to Close The Wage Gap

equal-pay-day-signingUpdate — April 9, 2014: The Pay­check Fair­ness Act died again in the Sen­ate.  The Sen­ate voted 53–44 to end debate and bring the bill to the floor for a vote, falling short of the 60 votes needed to over­come a filibuster.

April 8 is Equal Pay Day, mark­ing the num­ber of days the aver­age woman has to work into the new year to earn what a man in an equiv­a­lent job earned in the last cal­en­dar year alone. Nor­mally it’s not a day to cel­e­brate. Instead, it serves as a stark reminder that women in the United States still earn only 77 cents for every dol­lar a man receives.

That fact is morally and socially unac­cept­able.  But it is also eco­nom­i­cally fool­ish: the World Eco­nomic Forum has said that if women’s pay equaled men’s, the U.S. GDP would grow by nine percent.

Yes­ter­day Pres­i­dent Obama signed two direc­tives aimed at clos­ing the wage gap. First, an Exec­u­tive Order pro­hibits fed­eral con­trac­tors from retal­i­at­ing against employ­ees for shar­ing their salary infor­ma­tion with one another, mak­ing it eas­ier for women to dis­cover and address pay­check inequity. And the Pres­i­dent also instructed the Depart­ment of Labor to cre­ate new reg­u­la­tions requir­ing fed­eral con­trac­tors to report salary infor­ma­tion to the gov­ern­ment, expos­ing salary inequities and thereby encour­ag­ing con­trac­tors to close the wage gap voluntarily.

Both pres­i­den­tial actions mir­ror pro­vi­sions of the Pay­check Fair­ness Act, a bill now pend­ing before the Sen­ate which Con­gress has twice con­sid­ered and twice failed to pass. The mea­sure would amend the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which made it unlaw­ful for busi­nesses to pay men and women dif­fer­ent salaries for per­form­ing sub­stan­tially the same work. The Act would give teeth to the ban, mak­ing it ille­gal for com­pa­nies to retal­i­ate against employ­ees for dis­cussing salary dif­fer­ences and open­ing busi­nesses up to civil lia­bil­ity for salary inequity.

The Pay­check Fair­ness Act pro­vides essen­tial enhance­ments to the Lilly Led­bet­ter Fair Pay Act of 2009.  That Act resets the statute of lim­i­ta­tions for fil­ing an equal-pay law­suit every time a female employee receives a pay­check with a dis­crim­i­na­tory wage.  The law was a nar­row response to a dev­as­tat­ing Supreme Court rul­ing, Led­bet­ter v. Good Year Tire & Rub­ber Co., which held that women could only sue within 180 days of receiv­ing the first dis­crim­i­na­tory pay­check.  The Court found, incred­i­bly, that Ms. Led­bet­ter, the plain­tiff in the case, was enti­tled to no relief because she filed a law­suit in 1998 after dis­cov­er­ing the com­pany had been pay­ing her sig­nif­i­cantly less than her male coun­ter­parts since 1979.

Con­gress should fol­low Pres­i­dent Obama’s lead in clos­ing the wage gap and pay­ing women fair and equal salaries.  Hope­fully we will soon think of Equal Pay Day as a relic of the past, and will no longer have to mark a day on the cal­en­dar that demon­strates the fif­teen months it takes the aver­age woman to earn what the aver­age man earns in twelve.

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