Institutional Discrimination is Still Alive
If you think – as many do – we're in a 'post civil rights' period where discrimination and bigotry have been vanquished as ugly artifacts of a long-ago past, think again.
And read the United States Supreme Court's frightening decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
Ledbetter involved a woman – Lilly Ledbetter, the rare woman in her job category at an Alabama factory – who sued her employer for wage discrimination after years in which her paycheck was smaller than her male colleagues received for doing the same work.
She won a jury verdict on her claim, and the jury found it "more likely than not that [Goodyear] paid an unequal salary because of her sex." But the federal Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit -- disagreeing with every other appellate court that had considered the issue – reversed the decision, saying she had sued too late -- even though she continued to receive lower pay. The Supreme Court, by a 5 – 4 vote, upheld that decision.
Under Title VII, the nation's premier anti-discrimination civil rights law, "a charge of discrimination must be filed within 180 days after the alleged unlawful practice occurred."
But the 11th Circuit – and now a majority of the Supreme Court – has held that Lilly Ledbetter cannot recoup any pay lost because of discrimination because she did not sue when she was first victimized by receiving lower pay. As the New York Times noted, "Bizarrely, the majority insisted it did not matter that Goodyear was still paying her far less than her male counterparts when she filed her complaint."
Lilly Ledbetter is just one person, but the Court has given a free pass to all employers who discriminate in how much they pay their workers – women, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, everyone. The Ledbetter decision weakened a major civil rights law and weakened opportunities for victims of pay discrimination to seek relief in the courts.
In recent past decades, racial minorities and other victims of bias looked to the Supreme Court as a true court of last resort. When appeals to legislatures and lower courts had been rejected, the Supreme Court offered solace and relief.
That haven has vanished as hardened conservative jurists who prefer prejudice to precedent have overtaken the Court. In Ledbetter, the court ignored years of its own interpretations that would have corrected the wrong Lilly Ledbetter suffered for many years.
This decision is an unwelcome harbinger of likely outcomes in two pending school-choice cases from Seattle and Louisville. The issue in these cases is whether voluntary integration plans can be adopted to rescue minority children from segregated schools and give majority children a chance to learn with others different from them.
And this decision should signal to those who thought they were basking in the warm after-glow of the civil rights past a sharp wake-up call. That past is still very much with us.
Congress can and should change the law to correct the Supreme Court's errors in Ledbetter. The NAACP will help lead the charge.
And we should keep Lilly Ledbetter in mind when we vote next year – laws and courts do count, and elections help choose the people who make laws and who sit on courts.
Civil rights past? We're living in a harsh civil rights present – just ask Lilly Ledbetter.
Julian Bond is chairman of the NAACP board of directors. He is a distinguished scholar in the School of Government at American University in Washington, D.C., and a professor of history at the University of Virginia.