In the wake of the Civil War, the United States amended the Constitution to prohibit race discrimination. The Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment makes it unconstitutional for states to “deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This phrase has been interpreted, in part, to mean that the instruments of the state like courts and schools can’t discriminate against people based on race. The Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education (1954) decision, which held that states can’t segregate white and black children into different public schools, is an example of the amendment’s applicability.
Civil Rights Era Laws
However, the 14th Amendment only applies to state action. The most meaningful laws that prohibit private race discrimination are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both of these federal laws are actively used to redress racial discrimination in the areas of education, voting, employment, and housing.
Under the Civil Rights Act, racial discrimination can be shown in two ways:
- Disparate Treatment
- Disparate Impact
A claim of disparate treatment means that someone was directly discriminated against due to their skin color, ethnicity, or race. That is, there is evidence that the person was denied a job or entry into a restaurant because of his or her race.
However, since disparate treatment is currently generally rare and very hard to prove, most race discrimination claims made under the Civil Rights Act are based on disparate impact. This type of claim simply needs to show that some policy or behavior tends to have a greater negative impact on one racial group. For example, if blacks taking an exam to become a fire chief tend to fail at higher rates than whites taking the exam, a case may be made that the test is discriminatory.
The federal government has passed additional civil rights laws geared towards preventing or punishing racial discrimination.
In addition to federal laws against racial discrimination, states typically have their own state laws as well, which may be broader than federal law. In Illinois, the state passed its Human Rights Act in 1979. This act prohibits racial discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodation, financial credit, and education.
Each state law has its own particular framework to protect against racial discrimination, so it can be critical to have the assistance of an attorney. For example, under the Illinois Human Rights Act, there are only three races identified: white, black, and Asian. As a result, if a Hispanic person wants to file a complaint, he or she would have to make that complaint on the legal basis of ancestry, not race.
How Racial Discrimination Complaints Are Handled
In most cases, under both federal and state anti-discrimination laws, complainants must first go through an administrative legal process before being able to file a complaint in court. In Illinois, people who believe they’ve been discriminated against must file a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act. On a federal level, complaints of racial discrimination in the area of employment must be made with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.