Economic inequality

  • August 23, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Nicole G. Berner, Associate General Counsel of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Elena Medina, SEIU Law fellow. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    Fifty years ago, a quarter of a million Americans converged at our nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They demanded, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., payment on the nation’s promissory note for racial and economic justice. Our founding leaders executed that note when they signed into law the inalienable rights set forth in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Yet almost two centuries later, the country was mired in racial segregation and discrimination. So on August 28, 1963, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders and activists called on America to cease defaulting on its obligations to its citizens of color.There have been many crucial victories since that historic day, but five decades later the promises of that note remain out of reach for too many people. Due to the proliferation of low-wage jobs, too many hardworking Americans still cannot afford basic necessities like groceries, rent, childcare and transportation. 

    Dr. King understood that the struggles for racial equality and economic justice are inextricably linked.  In his words, “[w]hat does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” Dr. King therefore fought tirelessly alongside labor activists for what he believed were the rights of all workers to “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

    Indeed, it was the sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. Thirteen hundred Black sanitation workers had walked off the job to protest unsafe working conditions and discriminatory treatment. They refused to return until they secured better pay, improved working conditions and union recognition. Dr. King applauded them for “reminding, not only Memphis,” but also “the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” Tragically, he was assassinated the following day. But he would have been proud to know that those sanitation workers went on to negotiate an agreement implementing all of their demands.

  • August 22, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    A. Philip Randolph the influential labor and civil rights leader called Bayard Rustin “Mr. March,” referring to Rustin’s integral role in crafting the iconic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The A. Philip Randolph’s website describes Rustin’s tireless efforts to advance equality and human rights in America and describes him as the “Deputy Director and Chief Organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the 50th anniversary of which is being commemorated with events beginning this week and into next week.

    But because Rustin was also gay and refused to be someone he was not, he was at the time shunned by some within the civil rights movement and not surprisingly tarred by the FBI and other federal authorities as a “pervert.” Rustin’s sexuality was at the time employed crudely to try and undermine his noble and trailblazing work.   

    Change occurs albeit slowly within the country and sometimes for the better. Earlier this month President Obama in naming recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom included Rustin, posthumously. National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) Executive Director and CEO Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks lauded Obama’s action saying, “As one of the chief architects of the Civil Rights Movement and the brilliance behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rustin’s indispensable contributions to the ethos of our country continue to reverberate and push us toward a more just and fair society, America is indebted to Rustin, and our nation is right to finally honor him for his stalwart courage and leadership.”

    As USA Today reports, the NBJC will commemorate Rustin’s towering contributions to the civil rights movement and his invaluable leadership in bringing about the March on Washington during this year’s 50th Anniversary of the March. The A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), which Rustin helped found, will also commemorate Rustin and Randolph. APRI has a schedule of events here. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law also has a schedule of events. The Leadership Conference and many other public interest groups are commemorating the event.

    Last spring, ACS and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture hosted an event on Rustin's legacy. Video of event is below “read more” or available here.

    Catherine Albisa, executive director of the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative, in kicking off the panel discussion described Rustin as “an extraordinary example of what a social activist should be. He suffered for being a gay man at a time when gay men and lesbian women were persecuted for their sexuality. And I think from what I’ve read, some of the greatest suffering may not even have come from what his enemies threw at him, but what his friends threw at him; you know for accusations that he was betraying the movement for nothing more than being who he was, and yet he managed to stay true to himself and stay true to the movement.”

  • August 16, 2013

    U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) during this year’s ACS National Convention spoke a bit about his upbringing in a brutally racist society in rural Alabama. It was as Lewis recounted a time when he found inspiration in the words he heard over the radio from Martin Luther King Jr. and about the actions of Rosa Parks.

    “The action of Rosa Parks, the leadership and words of Dr. King inspired me to get in the way, to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” he said at the ACS Convention.

    Lewis, in a New York Times feature, said that 50 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Lewis spoke, the nation is still haunted by “our dark past.” This summer alone has provided too many examples of a nation resistant or fatally indifferent to the lives and rights of minorities. Indeed great economic inequalities and blatant inequalities in the criminal justice system are festering, not receding. These inequalities are decimating minority communities from coast to coast.

    At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, Lewis in front of the Lincoln Memorial provided a rousing call for equal opportunity, equality under the law. Today he is still pursuing the cause. At the ACS Convention Lewis presciently anticipated a devastating opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that gutted the landmark Voting Rights Act. Lewis said, “I have a strange feeling in America, at this point in history, we’re just a little too quiet. We’ve come to a point where we almost want to resign, and say this is just the way it is. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are still too many people in our society who have been left out and left behind.”

    Starting next week and running through Aug. 28 an array of groups, such as the Leadership Conference on Civil & human Rights, The Urban League, NAACP, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, SEIU, MALDEF, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and many others will host events daily commemorating the historic March and talking about the challenges and obstacles to genuine equality and economic justice that remain. A schedule of those events is available at the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s website.

    As Lewis said at the ACS Convention the nation has made strides, but much work remains to be done. Lewis urged the gathering, “Don’t give up, don’t give in, our struggle is one that does not last one day or one week, or one year. It is a struggle of a life time, or many life times. We must do what we can, as Dr. King said, to create the beloved community.” Video of Lewis’s speech is here.

  • July 24, 2013
    BookTalk
    Ghosts of Jim Crow
    Ending Racism in Post-Racial America
    By: 
    F. Michael Higginbotham

    by F. Michael Higginbotham, the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law, University of Baltimore School of Law

    Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America offers a prescription for moving America beyond its destructive race problem once and for all. While tremendous progress has been made, America remains unequal. Black unemployment, poverty, and homelessness are twice that of whites. Wealth accumulation for blacks is one twentieth of what it is for whites. Seventy-five percent of whites graduate from high school compared to less than 60 percent of blacks. While some blame personal choices for the discrepancies, the nation's deeply entrenched history of discrimination cannot be ignored. Emotional racial protests continuing across the country today prove that America is far from becoming "post-racial," to the chagrin of those proclaiming such when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008. 

    Ghosts of Jim Crow notes the three distinct eras, the nation’s founding, Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement, during which progress towards racial equality was marred by periods of resistance and retreat. Talk of building a new nation, on the principles of liberty and equality, in the latter 18th century, meant little to the millions of blacks forced into chattel slavery or to the free blacks who were racially profiled, presumed to be slaves, and denied due process rights simply because they were black (Hudginsv. Wright, 1806). The promise of emancipation, following the Civil War, was cut short when the Supreme Court adopted a “separate but equal” theory in Plessy v. Ferguson, at the end of the 1800s.  In the decades following, state and local governments' massive resistance to desegregation initiatives allowed "Jim Crow" segregation to flourish.  This remained true even after such behavior was ruled unconstitutional, in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. During the late 20th century, just as the civil rights movement was beginning to show results, through race-conscious affirmative action programs, the Supreme Court limited the government’s ability to redress all but the most blatant examples of discrimination. The 2013 State of Florida v. Zimmerman case, where a white neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting and killing the black teenager he allegedly profiled, Trayvon Martin, proves Ghosts continue to haunt black America. President Obama, who rarely comments on race, acknowledged as much in his recent comments.

    Subtle, yet pervasive, racism, through presumptions of black inferiority and embraces of black separation and white isolation continue to perpetuate the racial divide. There are two types of racism that prevent equality currently – structural racism and cultural racism. Structural racism involves policies, laws, and programs that embed inequality within society, and in so doing, reinforce cultural racism, those beliefs and actions that embrace racial hierarchy and isolation. Both structural and cultural racism must be ended in order to create equality. 

    Legislative and judicial responses to continuing racial inequality have been inadequate. The approach of simply eliminating government racial classifications is not sufficient. We must eliminate notions of superiority to stop the cyclical process whereby racist thoughts and actions lead to disparities. 

  • June 28, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Emily J. Martin,  Vice President and General Counsel at the National Women's Law Center

    You may have missed it in the flurry of newsmaking by the Supreme Court this week, but on Monday, five of the Justices gave early Christmas presents to defendants accused of employment discrimination, when the Court handed down important decisions in two Title VII cases: Vance v. Ball State University and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar.  In both Vance and Nassar, the 5-4 decisions ignored the realities of the workplace and the ways in which employment discrimination and harassment play out every day.  Placing new obstacles in the path of workers seeking to vindicate their rights, the Court set aside the longstanding interpretations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the agency charged with enforcing Title VII), and closed out a term in which the Court repeatedly limited the ability of individuals to challenge the actions of powerful corporations.

    Justice Samuel Alito wrote the Vance decision.  Prior cases have held that when a plaintiff shows she was sexually harassed, or racially harassed, or harassed on some other unlawful basis by a supervisor, her employer is liable, unless the employer can prove that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of a process that the employer provided for addressing harassment. An employer is only liable for harassment by a co-worker, however, when a plaintiff can show that the employer was negligent in controlling working conditions—a far tougher standard.  Vance posed the question of who is a supervisor: Is it only someone who has the authority to hire, fire, or take other tangible employment actions? Or is it anyone who oversees and directs the plaintiff’s work on a day-to-day basis? Ignoring the ways in which day-to-day supervisors have been invested with authority over other employees that empowers them to harass, the Court ruled on Monday that employers are not vicariously liable for harassment by day-to-day supervisors who do not have the authority to hire, fire, and the like. Indeed, showing even more solicitousness for the interests of employers than the defendant in the case had shown for itself, the majority adopted an even narrower interpretation of the word “supervisor” than had been urged by Ball State.