For nearly 30 years after the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited school desegregation in 1954, the court majority led the way toward broad civil rights protections for minorities and women. Following the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the court upheld prohibitions against discrimination in employment, education, voting, housing and public accommodations.
But last year, the court--led by Reagan appointees--began to reverse that trend, at least in the view of many civil rights leaders. With a series of 5-4 rulings, the court weakened laws and made it harder for workers to prove employment discrimination. In the wake of these controversial rulings, Congress must reaffirm the nation's commitment to equality by enacting a Civil Rights Act of 1990.
Among other things, the proposed civil rights law would offset a decision that shifted the burden of proof in job discrimination cases from employers to employees. The court's ruling requires workers to prove that certain job practices cause exclusion of minorities and women, a process that is legally difficult and expensive. In the present form of the proposed law, if a worker could prove that a job practice simply had an unequal impact on minorities and women, the employer would have to justify the practice as a business necessity.
Another recent Supreme Court ruling allows employees--usually white males--to challenge earlier civil rights settlements when they believe that existing consent decrees infringe on their employment rights. The civil rights bill would still allow a reasonable opportunity to challenge court orders, but it would prohibit open-ended litigation except in the most unusual circumstances.
Finally, although the legislation applies to hiring, promoting or firing, it does not require the employment or advancement of an unqualified worker, nor does it mandate hiring quotas.
The new law would reaffirm the national commitment to equal opportunity at a time when many minority Americans have begun to doubt it. The legislation is also important because most of the growth in the nation's work force in the next century will come from minorities and women. As the bill is debated and amended, the principle of fairness for these changing demographics should guide and give urgency to the deliberations.