Title VII and the Interplay of Racial and Economic Justice

JURIST Guest Columnists Leonard M. Baynes and David L. Gregory, both of the St. John's University School of Law, discuss the anniversary of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the interplay of racial and economic justice ...

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This landmark legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. Since its enactment, there has been dramatic advancement of African Americans in all areas of economic and civic life. In addition, Title VII's anti-discrimination principle has become an ingrained more in American society and taught Americans that racial discrimination is unacceptable.

As we celebrate this milestone year, it also important to put Title VII in the full context of the Civil Rights struggle, which embodied activism for both jobs and justice. On April 4, 2014, we also solemnly remember the forty-sixth anniversary of the martyrdom of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he championed striking Memphis sanitation workers' rights for better working conditions and decent wages. Dr. King advocated for nondiscrimination principles; but his activism also posited economic equality and fairness for all Americans.

Despite the progress that Title VII has generated, the Pew Research Center reports that, for the last fifty years, African American unemployment has consistently outpaced that of whites, sometimes approaching three times the white unemployment rate. Largely due to the disparity in educational opportunities, many African American men are unable to find full-time employment, and instead have to work part-time jobs. This situation is measured by the "underemployment rate." According to the New York State Department of Labor, African American men have an underemployment rate exceeding 25 percent.

How can this be? Given how courts have heightened the evidentiary requirements necessary to prove Title VII cases, have limited the ability to bring Title VII class actions, and have allowed employers to require arbitration, not court hearings, for Title VII claims, Title VII has become more of a "paper tiger" and is not the ideal vehicle to eliminate race discrimination in the workplace. Moreover, the progress of African Americans is limited by its application solely to racial justice. Title VII does not address economic justice and inequality. Therefore, other inequities in the workplace, such as fair pay, good jobs, fair working conditions, and overall economic inequality affecting the African American community cannot be remedied under Title VII if race discrimination can't be proven.

As we think about this conundrum of Title VII and its relationship to the economic progress of African Americans, it is important to keep King's overall message of jobs and justice in mind. We should not be blinded by the formal employment equality that Title VII affords to African Americans while economic injustice remains. Like King, we need to advocate on a broader playing field championing civil, labor, and human rights, and against the ill-gotten wealth of a few and for the poor "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." If not for the assassin's bullet, perhaps the 85-year-old Rev. Dr. King would be with us today advocating for economic fairness for all Americans.


Leonard M. Baynes is Professor of Law and the inaugural Director of the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development at St. John's University School of Law. He is also Co-Chair of the Title VII at 50 Symposium.

David L. Gregory is Dorothy Day Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at St. John's University School of Law. He is also Co-Chair of the Title VII at 50 Symposium.

Suggested Citation: Leonard M. Baynes & David L. Gregory, Title VII and the Interplay of Racial and Economic Justice, JURIST - Forum, Apr. 3, 2014, http://jurist.org/forum/2014/04/baynes-gregory-titlevii-interplay.php.


This article was prepared for publication by Alex Ferraro, Section Head of JURIST's Academic Commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at academiccommentary@jurist.org

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