Chapter Study Outline


Unlike civil liberties, which limit government’s ability to interfere in citizens’ lives, civil rights regulate how citizens must be treated in terms of their rights to participate in government and society. As such, the guarantee of civil rights often requires government action. Similar to civil liberties, the constitutional promise of civil rights may produce controversy when applied to specific cases and the United States Supreme Court has traditionally exercised significant agenda and decision-making power within American government in this area of public policy.

1. The Struggle for Civil Rights

What are civil rights? What roles has the national government played in providing citizens with the “equal protection of the laws” in the African American civil rights movement and in recognizing other rights claims? How has this changed the balance of federal power? How has it altered the relationship between individuals and the government?

  • Civil rights, the claims citizens are entitled to make on government for protection, became part of the Constitution in 1868 with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which promised all citizens “equal protection of the laws.”
  • In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court held that laws that enforced segregation of black and white citizens satisfied the Fourteenth Amendment protections so long as the facilities were equal; this “separate but equal” rule became the precedent that would dominate civil rights law for more than fifty years.
  • During the first half of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court extended the Plessy ruling but defined more strictly the criterion of what constituted “equal” facilities. The “separate but equal” ruling was eventually overturned in Brown v. Board of Education, wherein the court ruled that separate facilities were “inherently unequal.”
  • Although there was a great deal of resistance to the Brown decision (especially in the South), after that ruling, the national government was poised to intervene with strict regulatory policies against the discriminatory actions of state or local governments and the private sector. An example is the judicial extension of civil rights in education through the busing of students to nearby districts to implement desegregation.
  • Moreover, the Brown decision inspired collective action via greater activism in the civil rights movement’s civil disobedience and passive resistance efforts, eventually sparking congressional action to expand civil and voting rights for African Americans.
  • Since the passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964, the civil rights struggle has been expanded to questions of employment discrimination (primarily through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and universalized to include:
    • protection for women against gender discrimination in employment and education by virtue of the intermediate scrutiny test advanced by the Burger Court in the 1970s;
    • the rights of the Latino population, which has seen rapid growth in part as a result of immigration;
    • Asian Americans, for whom Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation established their right (as well as that of other non-English speakers) to public education and language accommodation for civic acts such as voting;
    • eligibility of illegal immigrants for education and medical care;
    • greater sovereignty for Native Americans living on reservations to establish self-government and a Supreme Court decision that freed tribes from most state regulations prohibiting gambling;
    • passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which guarantees the disabled equal employment rights and access to public places;
    • the aged, who are protected under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA); and
    • gays and lesbians, who have seen their civil rights expand through Supreme Court decisions such as Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas.
  • Many of the political battles concerning civil rights now center on the issue of affirmative action (that is, compensatory action to overcome the consequences of past discrimination and to encourage greater diversity). In 1978, the Supreme Court challenged the constitutionality of affirmative action on the grounds that, under some circumstances, it constituted reverse discrimination. This remains a very active issue as the Supreme Court continues to examine educational admission standards and refines its definition of what is and what is not constitutional. Additionally, affirmative action has appeared on ballot initiatives and referenda, demonstrating the sustained conflict over this area of civil rights.