Civil Rights Essay

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Governments grant civil rights to those considered citizens through birth or naturalization. When rights are not distributed evenly, conflicts arise. The first stage is often a struggle for citizenship and against laws that create and delimit access to citizenship and related rights and privileges. The 1790 Naturalization Law that established whiteness as a requirement for citizenship is a good example.

Throughout U.S. history, women and minorities have been excluded from full participation in civil rights. They protested their exclusion, using the founders’ articulations of equality and democracy as American ideals to draw support. Passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was the culmination of a long history of protest. This set into law both the requirement for protection against discrimination and the creation of agencies to oversee the expansion of civil rights.

The federal government, generally responsible for protecting citizen rights, created the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as an oversight agency. This commission is charged with monitoring other agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to ensure that they enforce the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect civil rights and combat discrimination. However, their ability to do so remains dependent on political will and the resources given to study and document discrimination and the violation of civil rights.

An Enduring Problem

The acquisition of civil rights for all groups remains inextricably linked to issues of inequality, discrimination, and social justice still plaguing the United States. The denial of civil rights led to mass protest in the country, particularly in the second half of the 20th century. Much of that protest centered on problems of voting and political representation. Protest groups saw political representation and voting as keys to accessing educational opportunity and employment and as a means for confronting discrimination in housing and real estate practices, police brutality, and bias in the judicial system.

Despite substantial progress in the expansion of civil rights to previously disenfranchised groups and dismantling de jure forms of segregation, patterns of social inequality remain. According to recent census data, minorities continue to lag significantly behind the majority group in educational attainment, wealth, occupational prestige, income, and quality of life as indicated by health and longevity. These patterns of inequality remain after controlling for similar educational and occupational standing. Despite increasing political integration, gaps remain. This is especially the case for African Americans, Latinos/as, and Native Americans. These groups are disproportionately impoverished, incarcerated, and underrepresented among political and economic leaders. Despite being citizens, the “first” Americans—members of the American Indian nations—suffer the worst poverty and the greatest marginalization.

Also, jobs in the United States are gendered. Gender segregation in occupations lead to women being relegated to jobs that do not ensure their future economic vitality and are characterized by lower wages. This pattern persists in each racial group. Women also suffer from media treatment that sexualizes and diminishes them. Substantive change in the striking gender imbalance that characterizes economic, political, and cultural institutions has been slow. It is not surprising, then, that sharp gender differences continue in income, wealth, and poverty, as well as in political representation. However, scholars vary significantly, as do the public and policymakers, in how they interpret these figures.

To some, it seems that the struggle for civil rights is no longer as pressing a social problem. However, the new millennium witnessed an expansion of both the definition of civil rights and those calling for their enactment. In the recent media spotlight on officials issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and in the massive demonstrations protesting immigration policies that restrict immigration, it is clear that civil rights remain a pressing social problem for those marginalized and excluded from rights and protections extended to others. Given the counterprotests to both these campaigns, it is also clear that civil rights concerns continue to produce conflict over what is meant by citizenship rights and who shall have access to them.

Ideology Versus Reality

Cemented into the founding documents of U.S. society, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, was an ideology of liberty and equality. Yet, as many scholars and activists note, social practices that work to reproduce structural inequality contradict this ideology. Because of this, much of the struggle to expand civil rights rests on the notion that U.S. society has not lived up to its creed of equal treatment before the law. Areas of concern include the right to citizenship, the right to vote, the right to own property, and rights to protection from employment and educational discrimination as well as harassment and violence based on group membership. Major leadership emerged from the African American community, who felt keenly their government’s abandonment following the abolition of slavery and the promise of reconstruction.

Despite amendments to the Constitution that (a) abolished slavery (13th Amendment), (b) granted citizenship to those born or naturalized in the United States and provided for “equal protection under the law” (14th Amendment), and (c) granted the right to vote to all male citizens (15th Amendment), the southern states were allowed to enact a series of Black Codes that consigned African Americans to a continued diet of repression and exploitation. Chicanos and Asians fared little better, as they too received no protection from segregated schools and relegation to the most exploited forms of labor, while experiencing violent repression and social exclusion.

In a period that had the potential for radical change in modes of political and economic distribution, the government instead opted for containment. It moved swiftly to relocate and relegate native peoples to reservations and to exclude wave after wave of Asian immigrants from settlement. It was not until massive social protest in the 20th century that civil rights became actualized for many.

The Civil Rights Movement

The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that rendered segregation in public schools unlawful was a dramatic reversal of the 1896 “separate but equal” doctrine announced in Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized segregation. In the decades following Plessy, W. E. B. Du Bois’s prediction that the major U.S. social problem of the 20th century would be the “color line” was borne out: Social life was characterized by division of the races into segregated and unequal schools, neighborhoods, churches, clubs, recreational facilities, and jobs. Whites alone enjoyed privileged access to political representation and the means for simple wealth accumulation through home ownership. The Brown decision represented a challenge to this privilege system. As activists responded, despite the widespread effects of race-based oppression, it was African Americans who were the mainstay of the multiracial civil rights movement.

Dramatic confrontations with Jim Crow legislation reveal the courage of activists such as Rosa Parks. Her refusal to cede her bus seat to a white man led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which delivered a significant victory in the battle for desegregation at the start of the civil rights movement. A young Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to leadership of the movement, built upon a coalition of activist groups that included the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress for Racial Equality, and established groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. However, it was the everyday citizens who risked their lives whose heroism should be realized for its contribution to social change. They braved bombings, beatings, police dogs, fire hoses, and jails, laying their lives on the line for justice.

They established a base of support in black churches and drew media attention as they successfully framed the civil rights movement as a moral crusade and recruited a wide base of supporters that included many students. Dr. King drew upon the practice of nonviolent confrontation that Mahatma Gandhi initiated in India’s struggle against British colonialism. Involvement in the civil rights movement politicized a nation with tactics of nonviolent, direct disobedience including marches, sit-ins, and arrests that followed consciousness-raising through “rap sessions” and generated international support for the cause.

Civil Rights Legislation

The civil rights movement of the mid-20th century culminated in passage of a broad civil rights act that assured the right to vote and outlawed discrimination in public areas, education, employment, and all federally funded programs. Eventually, protection against discrimination extended to social group membership by race, color, national origin, religion, sex, and age, later expanding to include disability. Related legislation removed the long-standing white preference in immigration quotas, required equal pay for equal work, and established oversight agencies.

Identity Politics and Mass Protest

A host of disenfranchised groups adapted tactics and ideological frames of the civil rights movement as they struggled for equitable treatment and social justice. New social movements emerged based on social group membership, or “identity politics.” African Americans organized for Black Power and national liberation, Native peoples organized as the American Indian Movement to create a coalition of indigenous nations that protested the federal government’s refusal to honor their treaties, and a Chicano movement also emerged. Women, politicized by their experience in the civil rights movement, organized as feminists to force attention on gender and sex in society. A gay rights movement, accompanied this examination of gender and sex in society. These efforts by activists to extend the agenda initiated by the civil rights movement paralleled the expansion of the scholarly discourse and research on civil rights.

Theorizing Civil Rights

Sharp divisions mark the discourse on civil rights. Scholars debate over how to define the correlation between stratification and differential access to civil rights protections. They interpret outcomes of civil rights legislation differently, leading to contemporary arguments over whose access to civil rights shall be guaranteed and what rights the state shall be bound to protect. Moreover, scholars debate whether a successful conclusion to the campaign for civil rights, their extension and enforcement, can bring about social justice and equality.

Assimilationist scholars dominated the discourse on racial/ethnic inequality and its resolution throughout much of the 20th century. Their prediction of a harmonious outcome to conflicts that accompanied social marginalization based on group membership rested on assumptions that once ethnic minorities adopted the cultural patterns of the dominant group, they would find acceptance throughout society. They saw the denial of full participation in society as the result of irrational prejudices that produced discriminatory treatment and social marginalization, as well as periodic violent confrontations.

For such scholars, passage of the Civil Rights Act resolved inequality based on racial prejudice. Inequality could be legislated away by outlawing discrimination. Any vestiges of inequality were the outcome of individual capabilities, motivation, and training. Where patterns of social inequality persisted, they could be interpreted as arising from cultural differences—not exclusionary practices.

Liberal feminist scholars’ positions on the effectiveness of civil rights legislation to resolve women’s inequality parallel those of assimilationist scholars. Their central premise is that women should advance in what they view as a meritocratic society without being hampered by discrimination. Civil rights legislation led to the removal of legal barriers to women’s education and employment opportunities, thereby resolving their main problems. Further, they argue that resistant problems of occupational segregation and the gender wage gap may result from choices women make due to their socialization as mothers and wives that suppress their human capital.

Critical race scholars, on the other hand, argue that race shapes social institutions and culture, leading to the social construction of race categories imbued with notions of capacity and behavior that emanate from an ideology of white male supremacy. These “racializing” notions are culturally embedded, so legislation is insufficient to counter their effects on social interactions and cultural representations. Given white hegemony, whites would need the will to counter their own privilege for anything to change, and no evidence suggests that this exists. Discrimination continues, though somewhat abated, in covert forms. Segregation in schools and neighborhoods, persistent poverty, police brutality, and mass incarcerations of young men of color are outcomes of a racial hegemony that reproduces white privilege and racial oppression. These problems, they argue, reflect a flawed social structure and mandate social change, but the society instead has exhibited backlash tendencies against the gains of civil rights legislation in the decades that have ensued. Contemporary discourse promoting a color-blind approach to race will only retard struggles for justice. Neither civil rights legislation nor color-blind policies negate the effects of globalization and deindustrialization on the inner cities that remain disproportionately peopled by African Americans and Latinos/as.

Radical feminists, socialist feminists, and multiracial feminists argue, similarly, that legislation can ease, but not resolve, structural inequalities. Though discrimination has been outlawed, women face occupational sex segregation, the “second shift,” and sexual violence nurtured by patriarchal culture. Though, like racial minorities, they have benefited from removal of barriers to education and employment, they still do not net the same rewards as white men for their efforts. For example, men who enter feminized occupations such as nursing and education enjoy a swift ride to the top via “glass escalators” while women are shunted into dead-end careers such as clerical work, under a “glass ceiling.”

Despite documentation of civil rights complaints and evidence of practices that maintain race and gender stratification, public discourse suggests that civil rights legislation has resolved related problems except those residing within the cultures of marginalized groups. Given recent allegations that African Americans were disenfranchised in the first two presidential elections of the new millennium amid disputes over race and redistricting, even the central civil rights movement promise of voting rights remains in question.


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  2. Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  3. Brown, Michael K. et al. 2003. Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  4. Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg.
  5. Gordon, Milton. 1964. Assimilation in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Hacker, Andrew. 1992. Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. New York: Macmillan.
  7. Haney Lopez, Ian K. 2006. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. 10th anniv. ed. New York: New York University Press.
  8. Morris, Aldon D. 1986. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: Free Press.
  9. Oliver, Melvin L. and Thomas M. Shapiro. 2006. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
  10. Omi, Michael. 2008. Racial Formation in the New Millennium. New York: Routledge.
  11. Steinberg, Stephen. 2001. Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy. 3rd ed. Boston: Beacon Press.

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