Sunday, January 17, 2010

Essay: Civil Rights in America

A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Examples of civil rights are freedom of speech, press, and assembly; the right to vote; freedom from involuntary servitude; and the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class. Statutes have been enacted to prevent discrimination based on a person's race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances sexual preference.

The most important expansion of civil rights in the United States was the enactment of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. In response to the 13th Amendment, various states enacted "black codes" which were intended to limit the civil rights of the newly free slaves. In 1868 the 14th Amendment was passed to counter the "black codes" and ensure that no state "shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States... [or] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, [or] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Congress was also given the power by section five of the Fourteenth Amendment to pass any laws needed for its enforcement.

During the "reconstruction era" that followed, Congress enacted numerous civil rights statutes. Many of these statutes are still in force today and protect individuals from discrimination and from the deprivation of their civil rights. Section 1981 of Title 42 (Equal Rights Under the Law) protects individuals from discrimination based on race in making and enforcing contracts, participating in lawsuits, and giving evidence. Other statutes, derived from acts of the reconstruction era, that protect against discrimination include: Civil Action For Deprivation of Rights ( 42 U.S.C. § 1983); Conspiracies to Interfere With Civil Rights (42 U.S.C. § 1985); Conspiracy Against Rights of Citizens (18 U.S.C. § 241); Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law, (18 U.S.C. § 242); The Jurisdictional Statue for Civil Rights Cases (28 U.S.C. § 1443);Peonage Abolishment (42 U.S.C. § 1994).

The most prominent civil rights legislation since reconstruction is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Decisions of the Supreme Court at the time limited Congressional enforcement of the 14th Amendment to state action. (Since 1964 the Supreme Court has expanded the reach of the 14th Amendment in some situations to individuals discriminating on their own). Therefore, in order to reach the actions of individuals, Congress, using its power to regulate interstate commerce, enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under Title 42, Public Health and Welfare, Chapter 21, Civil Rights, of the United States Code. Discrimination based on "race, color, religion, or national origin" in public establishments that had a connection to interstate commerce or that was supported by the state is prohibited (42 U.S.C. § 2000a).

Public establishments include places of public accommodation (e.g., hotels, motels, trailer parks), restaurants, gas stations, bars, taverns, and places of entertainment in general. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation also declared a strong legislative policy against discrimination in public schools and colleges which aided in desegregation. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination where the employer is engaged in interstate commerce. Congress has passed numerous other laws dealing with employment discrimination.

The judiciary, most notably the Supreme Court, plays a crucial role in interpreting the extent of the civil rights. A single Supreme Court ruling can change the very nature of a right throughout the entire country. Supreme Court decisions can also affect the manner in which Congress enacts civil rights legislation, as occurred with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal courts were/are crucial in mandating and supervising school desegregation programs and other programs established to rectify state or local discrimination.

State constitutions, statutes and municipal ordinances provide further protection of civil rights, e.g. New York's Civil Rights Law.

Over the years, the term civil rights and liberties has become blurred by special interest and become the means by which redistribution of wealth, unrealistic hiring quotas, and the pronouncement of a new social order have taken shape. Civil rights has become the calling card for rights = privilege via legislating responsibility. However, a government in this day and age in a free society can no more pass laws for responsible behavior and enforce them than they can legislate, say, morality. Civil rights has also morphed into social responsibility with no apparent direction.

But in dealing with the worst racial problems we now face, the civil rights approach is no longer the right tool for the job. Today's most serious racial injustices aren't caused by bias and bigotry; instead they stem from racial segregation and the many disadvantages that follow from living in isolated, economically depressed, and crime-ridden neighborhoods. These problems are a legacy of past racism, but not, by and large, the result of ongoing discrimination. Civil rights litigation and activism have hardly made a dent in these formidable obstacles. It's tempting to believe that we just need more of the same - that we've only been too timid in enforcing civil rights laws or too conservative in interpreting them. But the real problem is inherent in the civil rights approach itself: faced with racial inequities that are not caused by discrimination, civil rights law is impotent and civil rights activism too often a distraction from the real work we need to do.

To say discrimination is not the cause of our worst racial problem is not to deny that racism is still a serious problem. Even today, too many people distrust or belittle others based on casual stereotypes; racial tensions continue to trouble social interactions in schools and workplaces, and the racial hatred and contempt that underlay the Jim Crow system is far from gone. Civil rights are an important response to these problems.

But, today, the biggest racial problem facing the country isn't discrimination, but rather the deep inequality that has created almost two different Americas, one black and poor and the other a more prosperous, multi-racial mainsteam. Many poor inner-city blacks have no contact with the mainstream of American society or with the conventional job market. Fathers who are unable to support their families walk away from them; young single mothers, overwhelmed with the challenges of parenthood, abandon education and any hope for upward mobility. In isolation, ghetto residents develop distinctive speech patterns and affectations that can be off-putting to potential employers, exacerbating the lack of economic opportunity. Deprived of legitimate job opportunities, many hustle in the quasi-legal gray market; others turn to full-fledged crime.

To fight this entrenched racial inequality, we need to move beyond civil rights to an approach that is both more circumspect and more ambitious. We should be more circumspect in blaming racism, and hidden racists, for problems with more subtle causes. But we must be more ambitious in directly confronting the decline of inner city neighborhoods and the isolation of the urban poor. And many of the reforms needed to improve the ghettos - job creation, more effective schools, better public infrastructure - would benefit poor and working class people of all races, striking a blow against class stratification as well as racial inequality.

If we confront and overcome these last vestiges of America's racist past, if we can break the cycle of poverty and dysfunctional behavior, we can not only turn the corner on America's shameful racist history; we can also turn millions of people who now drain resources in our jails and on public assistance rolls into productive citizens who will contribute to a vibrant economy and healthy civic culture.

For those who have inherited the benefits of the civil rights struggle, it's hard to imagine the deprivation, oppression, and humiliation that millions of African-Americans suffered just a few decades ago. Africans were forcibly brought to this country as slaves, sold by their own countrymen, legally defined as chattel and treated as less than human.

Consider employment. Is it because of corporate racism that many workforces are disproportionately white? Most jobs today are filled through interpersonal networking, and a large and growing share of jobs require not only objective technical skills but also "soft skills" such as charm, good demeanor, and that ineffable "can-do attitude." Poor people - many of them black - in isolated ghettos are cut off from the social networks that might lead to job opportunities, and they lack the role models and socialization that teach the attitudes appropriate for the work world. Bigots can use such criteria as an excuse to reject black applicants, to be sure. But employers who insist on interpersonal "soft skills," and thus wind up eliminating a disproportionate number of minority applicants from consideration, aren't necessarily racists, although, that is how corporate America is perceived by Progressives and Liberals - Big Bad White Business Keeping the Black Man Down.

In a sense, civil rights have become an attempt to address these deep-seated social problems on the cheap. The civil rights focus on bigotry is attractive, even when it's a poor fit, because it seems to offer a shortcut to consensus. Almost everyone - Democrat and Republican, Marxist radical and Burkean conservative - agrees that racism is both morally wrong and socially destructive. Prohibiting discrimination and condemning racism is much less costly and less controversial than confronting the fundamental inequities of our economy and our use of public resources.

Viable solutions to poverty, joblessness, failing schools, and crime will necessarily involve building a consensus in support of policies that are both bold and highly controversial. For example, to promote job creation in the inner city, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has called for a WPA policy for poor neighborhoods; others have suggested that loss of American jobs should be discouraged through trade, tax, and immigration policy. All of these ideas are controversial: fiscal conservatives balk at what they consider expensive "make work" programs; free trade advocates oppose restrictions on outsourcing; and liberals dislike constraints on immigration.

Fixing failing schools may require dramatic changes in school financing policies that tie funding to SLOST amendments, sound investments, as well as the expansion of alternatives to neighborhood-based schools, such as magnet school programs and charter schools, or the revision of seniority systems that perversely give the ablest teachers the least challenging assignments, leaving troubled inner city schools to the least experienced. There is fierce opposition to these ideas from local governments, school boards, and teachers unions.

To reduce crime in inner cities, and the incarceration of inner-city residents, we'll need to consider new approaches to law enforcement. Some insist that the war on drugs has become a quagmire and advocate decriminalization of some less dangerous drugs. Proponents of the famous "Boston Miracle" argue that we can break gang affiliations and patterns of criminal behavior by offering potential criminals a stark choice: help in finishing school and finding employment if they turn away from crime; tough criminal sentences if they don't. Both ideas will meet with resistance: conservatives oppose decriminalization of drugs, and liberals are suspicious of "tough love."

Fortunately, the time may be ripe for new and unsettling ideas and unconventional solutions to the problems of our inner cities. With the economy in crisis, even many conservatives see the need for aggressive investment in public infrastructure and for greater regulation of the economy. Liberals and conservatives in many cities have come together in favor of school choice in charter schools. States from Texas to Connecticut have reformed school finance, devoting more funds to underperforming schools in poor neighborhoods. Libertarian-leaning conservatives support decriminalization of drugs, while some "New Democrats" embrace law enforcement innovations like the Boston Miracle.

For American of all races, the civil rights movement embodies the best of American ideals. The Freedom Rides of the 1960s are as central to the American story as Paul Revere's midnight ride; the Montgomery Bus Boycott as emblematic of American virtues as the Boston Tea Party. After generations of legally sanctioned discrimination and exclusion, Americans began to make good on this nation's defining promise of equality regardless of ancestry or accident of birth.

Yet America's racist past retains its grip, trapping many blacks in circumstances that are little better than those of their ancestors. It is tempting to think that we must simply press for more sweeping and dramatic applications of civil rights, or argue more inventively and search more tenaciously for the hidden racism that will justify legal intervention. Martin Luther King Jr. himself understood that racial inequality was as much a problem of poverty as it was of white racism: near the end of his life he promoted a multi-racial Poor People's Campaign. This campaign never achieved the same attention as King's earlier civil rights efforts, and it disintegrated after his assassination, but it was just as vital to the ultimate goal of racial justice as his more familiar civil rights agenda. Now, we must not simply continue in the tradition of the civil rights movement: to complete its work and honor its spirit, we must move beyond it.

Essay questions not covered: Is health a right or a privledge? To provide a short answer - While most would consider it a right, we consider it a privilege. As Americans, you can purchase health care coverage that can be tailored to your needs or you can receive these benefits through your employer. However, it is not a right, as it is not guaranteed to everyone. In fact, if it were guaranteed to everyone, this would be the push towards universal health care. In fact, we should be addressing the high cost of health care, and how we can lower the cost in a common sense fashion. In fact, if the lawmakers were serious about health care and the reforms that is required, they would address Tort Reform. However, with every law is a greedy, ivory tower-encased lawyer, so this will not happen soon enough.

Health care is a privilege, as there are many Americans who choose whether or not they want health care coverage. Some cannot afford the coverage, while there are some who can afford coverage. It is the choice that many have to face in the morning. If it is a right, then prepare yourselves for long waiting lines for life saving procedures, physicians having to choose whether or not they can practice in this country, and losing the life saving innovative procedures that America is known for. Perhaps, a third option should be considerd: neither right nor privilege; health care is a “Responsibility.” As in it is each person’s responsibility to take care of their own health.

Sources: Southern Poverty Law Center; NAACP; Cornell University Law Library; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1996; Richard Thompson Ford - "The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse"

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