Identifying Civil Rights Issues
When we look back at the past, it’s relatively easy to identify civil rights issues that arose. But looking into the future is much harder. For example, few people fifty years ago would have identified the rights of the LGBT community as an important civil rights issue or predicted it would become one, yet in the intervening decades it has certainly done so. Similarly, in past decades the rights of those with disabilities, particularly mental disabilities, were often ignored by the public at large. Many people with disabilities were institutionalized and given little further thought, and within the past century, it was common for those with mental disabilities to be subject to forced sterilization.
Today, most of us view this treatment as barbaric.
Clearly, then, new civil rights issues can emerge over time. How can we, as citizens, identify them as they emerge and distinguish genuine claims of discrimination from claims by those who have merely been unable to convince a majority to agree with their viewpoints? For example, how do we decide if twelve-year-olds are discriminated against because they are not allowed to vote? We can identify true discrimination by applying the following analytical process:
- Which groups? First, identify the group of people who are facing discrimination.
- Which right(s) are threatened? Second, what right or rights are being denied to members of this group?
- What do we do? Third, what can the government do to bring about a fair situation for the affected group? Is proposing and enacting such a remedy realistic?
Join the Fight for Civil Rights
One way to get involved in the fight for civil rights is to stay informed. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a not-for-profit advocacy group based in Montgomery, Alabama. Lawyers for the SPLC specialize in civil rights litigation and represent many people whose rights have been violated, from victims of hate crimes to undocumented immigrants. They provide summaries of important civil rights cases under their Docket section.
Activity: Visit the SPLC website to find current information about a variety of different hate groups. In what part of the country do hate groups seem to be concentrated? Where are hate incidents most likely to occur? What might be some reasons for this?
Civil rights institutes are found throughout the United States and especially in the south. One of the most prominent civil rights institutes is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is located in Alabama.
The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment gives all people and groups in the United States the right to be treated equally regardless of individual attributes. That logic has been expanded in the twenty-first century to cover attributes such as race, color, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. People may still be treated unequally by the government, but only if there is at least a rational basis for it, such as a disability that makes a person unable to perform the essential functions required by a job, or if a person is too young to be trusted with an important responsibility, like driving safely. If the characteristic on which discrimination is based is related to sex, race, or ethnicity, the reason for it must serve, respectively, an important government interest or a compelling government interest.