Racial Discrimination

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Racial discrimination occurs when individuals are denied opportunities for political participation, education, employment, and other services based on race. Historically African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and other minority groups have faced widespread racial discrimination in the United States.

The Civil War Amendments (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) aimed to ended slavery and grant citizenship and voting rights to the freed slaves; however, only the first objective was realized. After the end of the Reconstruction period in the late 1870s, African Americans faced widespread racial discrimination and were denied the right to vote in many states through the use of intimidation, threats, literacy tests, and poll taxes. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Homer Plessy challenged the State of Louisiana’s policy of segregated railway cars under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could require segregated facilities as long as the facilities were of equal quality. While the case did not directly address the issue of schools, subsequent decisions made it clear that the doctrine also applied to the segregation of public schools. In some western states, other minorities such as Asians and Latinos were also subject to segregation laws. The Court did not take up the issue of whether facilities were actually equal, which they frequently were not. The Plessy decision validated the system of “Jim Crow” laws requiring segregated facilities for blacks and whites that had been passed by southern and some border state legislatures in the 1880s. The laws were often applied to schools, railroads (and later buses), restaurants, hotels, residential housing, and other facilities. The system of laws remained until it was challenged and defeated in the 1950s and 1960s through the Civil Rights movement, the court system, and federal legislation.

The “separate but equal” clause was not overturned until Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), in which the court ruled that separate schools were “inherently unequal.” There were actually five cases argued together brought by children and parents with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from not only the South but also several border states and Washington, D.C., all challenging school segregation. In the following year in Brown v. Board of Education (or Brown II, as it is often called), the Supreme Court ordered the schools to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.” The case did not specify exactly how much time schools had to desegregate, thus the decision was interpreted in many different ways. The reaction to the Brown decision was resistance and delay in many cases. It took years before some states were operating unitary public school systems open to all races. While legal segregation (de jure segregation) had finally ended by the 1970s, many schools throughout the country remain largely segregated due to de facto (caused by circumstances) segregation caused by residential segregation.

The Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964 banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, and national origin, while the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enforced the Fifteenth Amendment by banning discriminatory qualifications and processes designed to disqualify voters based on race. The CRA addressed discrimination in public accommodations, education, programs receiving federal assistance, and employment. Title VII banned employment discrimination and created the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission to enforce the provision. In the 1990s, after the Supreme Court interpreted the CRA narrowly, making it difficult for victims of discrimination to sue for monetary damages, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which amended the CRA to allow such claims to be adjudicated.

To ensure equal opportunities to those who had been denied access to education and employment, policies adopted after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act sought to go beyond nondiscrimination. Affirmative action is a combination of programs originally used to remedy the effects of past discrimination by giving preference to affected minority groups. In recent years the stated goals of affirmative action have moved from a focus on remedying past discrimination to one of ensuring a climate of diversity, especially in higher education. The Supreme Court has allowed limited use of affirmative action, especially in higher education admissions. It has also ruled that voluntary affirmative action programs do not violate the Civil Rights Act. The Court applies the same strict standard in reviewing affirmative action laws under the Fourteenth Amendment as it does for reviewing laws designed to discriminate. The government must show a compelling interest to justify race-conscious policies, and the law must be designed to achieve the interest must be narrowly tailored. In a case that challenged the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy, Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) the Supreme Court overturned the school’s point system that automatically awarded twenty points to minorities because it made race a deciding factor rather than one of many factors. On the other hand, in Grutter v. Bollinger the Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School admissions policy that considered race as one of many factors in the admissions decision process. The Court held that ensuring a diverse learning atmosphere constituted a compelling interest that the Court has required under the Fourteenth Amendment for making race-based distinctions in law.

Due to national legislation and many important Supreme Court decisions, discrimination is no longer legal, and it has been greatly reduced but not eliminated.


Faye Crosby, Affirmative Action Is Dead; Long Live Affirmative Action (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); and Hanes B. Walton and Robert C. Smith, American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom, 2nd ed. (New York: Longman, 2002).

Maureen Rand Oakley

Last Updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Brown v. Board of Education; Civil Rights Act of 1875; Civil Rights Act of 1964