The overarching motivation behind the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was to overhaul the deeply iniquitous social system in the United States. Indeed, discrimination of various kinds reigned supreme in the country at that time. However, in addition to its obvious social undertones, the 1964 Civil Rights Act had clear implications for business. Indeed, Title VII of the act forbade employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, as well as established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Consequently, the adoption of the act heralded a new era both for employers and employees. The current paper seeks to ascertain the existing impact of the act on both society and business in the US. To set the tone for discussion of the main problem, the paper begins with the history of the act, focusing on a rationale for it and its implementation. After exploring influence of the act, it segues into the analysis of act’s effectiveness from the vantage point of history, dwelling both on its strengths and weaknesses. Finally, based on the shortcomings of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the paper offers some recommendations for future policymakers that could potentially help to tackle business-related issues, which the discussed act has failed to tackle. Overall, this paper will argue that the major effect of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on business and society in the US was that it improved employment opportunities for all individuals, regardless of their color, race, sex, religion, and/or national origin.
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History of the Act
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was adopted at the height of civil rights movement that engulfed the US in the mid-20th century, marking a triumphant culmination of that movement. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which sought to specifically forbid employment discrimination, was one of the centerpieces of the legislation. Its adoption marked a victory for minority members, who were denied of equal employment opportunities because of their “color, race, religion, sex, and/or national origin” (“Public Law 88-352”, 1964). However, it is necessary to note at the outset of this discussion that historic roots of the problem reached deeper into history than the civil rights movement.
The abolition of slavery in 1865 lulled African Americans the main beneficiaries of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the main champions of its adoption into a false belief that their economic circumstances would improve. In a sense, their fate was improved, as former slaves received manumission. In essence, however, former slaves and other African Americans “found themselves relegated to an economic underclass” that confined them to perfunctory employment in agriculture and domestic service (Gregory, 2014, p. 3). In the subsequent decades, the government took conscious efforts to preserve precarious socioeconomic standing of African Americans. Gregory (2014) maintains that the Supreme Court’s ruling that “equal protection of the laws clause of the Fourteenth Amendment allowed a state to provide a separate but equal facilities for the emancipated slave” effectively sanctioned the existence of the African American economic underclass (p. 3). Consecutive administrations perpetuated this deplorable state of affairs, preferring instead to settle into the policy of benign neglect to the issue. As a corollary of this, an estimated 90% of all working African Americans received skimpy pays, as compared to white workers, throughout the first half of the 20th century. In the early 1960s, nonwhite workers in the US received wages that were 60% lower than those of white Americans, while nonwhite females received even less (Gregory, 2014).
It is important to note in this context that not only nonwhite, but also white, women were discriminated in the US in terms of the existing employment opportunities. The exclusion of women from the labor market had quite a persistent character. Married women with children had the lowest chances of finding decent jobs. Even state statues and court decisions approved of women’s exclusion from the labor market. For example, Gregory (2014) cites an 1872 Supreme Court decision, which upheld the earlier Illinoi’s rejection of a woman’s desire to practice law on evidently sexist grounds: “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits women for many of the occupations of civil life” (p. 4). The Supreme Court continued affirming women’s exclusion from the workplace throughout the first half of the 20th century. During and in the wake of World War II, as able-bodied men faced conscription, women increasingly entered the labor market (Gold, 2011). Nonetheless, women still encountered harsh discrimination in most economic sectors with the new barriers rising after veterans started returning from the battlegrounds in 1945.
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White people of non-American origin fared somewhat better than African Americans and women in terms of employment opportunities. Nevertheless, it was not a rarity that American employers stated explicitly in their help wanted advertisements that some nationalities were not desired for the jobs they offered (Bringle, 2014). Gregory (2014) agrees with this statement, adding that able-bodied people of Irish descent had a difficult time finding decent employment, as job notices declared “No Irish Need Apply”. Representatives of other nationalities, including Asians and Latinos, also commonly received lower pay and faced other discriminatory policies in the workplace, provided that they were lucky enough to find any employment.
While a person’s religion in and of itself seldom played a crucial role in the ultimate decision whether to hire that person, it nonetheless was subject to discrimination. Gold (2011), for example, cites examples of people who were forced to attend the so-called business meetings at their companies, which started with religious homilies or prayers. Apparently, forced participation in such meetings at the risk of expulsion was discriminatory. By the same token, it was repugnant to the freedom of conscience of atheist employees and employees observing other religious creeds.
All of these discriminatory practices that had lasted for decades, if not centuries, raised the ire of the discriminated Americans. Either because they wanted to make semblance or because they really cared, consecutive administrations introduced some piecemeal reforms to end discriminatory practices in the first half of the 20th century. In 1941, for example, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which forbade discrimination in the hiring practices of the defense industry (Bringle, 2014). On the one hand, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower followed the suit, churning out executive orders to prohibit discrimination in federal government and government contracting (Gregory, 2014). The private sector, on the other hand, saw little desegregation, as Congress failed to take any pertinent measures. Disenfranchised and disgruntled, African Americans, together with other discriminated Americans and their sympathizers from among the general population, have organized the civil rights movement in the early 1950s to pressure the government into tackling the ubiquitous discrimination. The time was ripe for the adoption of new comprehensive legislation that would end employment discrimination.
Implementation of the Act
Popular support for the adoption of comprehensive employment discrimination legislation was formidable in the US. But opposition to its adoption was also formidable. In the late 1950s-early 1960s, American legislators were primarily loath to bow to the demands of the civil rights movement. The 1957 Civil Rights Act and the 1960 Civil Rights Act, which purported to extend voting rights to the hitherto disenfranchised Americans, were both diluted or, to use the words of Loevy (n.d.), “badly watered down” (p. 1). Neither act brought about dramatic changes in the social standing of African Americans and their other discriminated compatriots; it neither addressed the problem of unequal employment opportunities.
It was not until 1963 that President Kennedy sent a strong message to both Congress and the general population about the immediate need for comprehensive civil rights legislation that would cover employment discrimination. Haranguing the nation, Kennedy declared:
This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds and on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened… It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color (cited in Gregory, 2014, p. 9).
President Kennedy did not live long enough to witness the adoption of the legislation he initiated. He exhorted that the legislation should be adopted by the end of the 88th Congress – that is, by January 1965. However, the strong Southern civil rights “veto” in Congress took conscientious efforts to kick the proposed bill into the long grass of Congress committees and reports. Indeed, Loevy (n.d.) explains that federal legislators from the South deftly exploited loopholes in the Congress bylaws. Loevy (n.d.) further adds that the House Rules Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee were both spearheaded by staunch opponents of civil rights. The then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee alone defeated more than 100 civil rights bills during his career (Loevy, n.d.). Similarly, the strong anti-civil rights coalition in both chambers of Congress resorted to filibustering to oppose the adoption of President Kennedy’s civil rights bill. The president could only observe supinely the process, as he lacked sway on the Southern civil rights “veto”. Interestingly, whereas some stratagems to defeat the bill worked as designed, others backfired for the benefit of the bill. For example, the word “sex” was included in the document by Howard Smith in an attempt to deep-six the bill (“Teaching with Documents,” n.d.). By an odd twist of fate, however, the attempt failed, making the bill even more comprehensive.
Shortly before Kennedy’s assassination back in November of 1963, “the compromise civil rights bill was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee”, but it again encountered opposition of the avowed segregationists in the House Rules Committee (Loevy, n.d., p. 1). Although American society expected the Kennedy’s replacement, Vice-President Johnson, would disavow Kennedy’s fight for civil rights, Johnson, in fact, gave a powerful impetus to the would-be 1964 Civil Rights Act. Realizing that the support for Kennedy’s causes after his assassination was even stronger, Johnson admonished Congress to pass the bill in memory of his predecessor: “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights… It is time now to write the next chapter and to write it in the books of law” (Loevy, n.d., p. 1). In the ensuing months, Johnson would never remiss to raise public awareness about the bill and to admonish Congress members to adopt it.
With Johnson dedicated to the task, the Democratic leadership in Congress somehow managed to bypass the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 1964 and, ultimately, defeated the filibuster of the civil right opponents in the Senate by voting for cloture. As a result, the Senate adopted the bill in June 1964 and Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on 2 July 1964.
Barring its adoption, one of the main steps towards the implementation of the bill was the establishment of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, often shortened to EEOC. The commission is particularly concerned with the administration and enforcement of laws that prohibit discriminatory practices in hiring and firing based on color, race, religion, sex and national origin. Over the decades, the subsequent legislation has been adopted to broaden the powers of the EEOC (“Teaching with Documents,” n.d.). Yet, because the 1964 Civil Rights gave birth to it, it should enjoy the credit for commission’s success.
Impact of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on Business
The pre-1964 civil rights legislation blighted the employment opportunities for African Americans and many other discriminated tiers of population. Until the implementation of the act, equal employment opportunities were vaguely defended by the US Constitution’s prohibition of denying equal protection. The 1964 Civil Rights Act – Title VII of the act, specifically – sought to address this issue. Conceived to introduce equality into the labor market and workplaces across the country, Title VII proclaims:
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin (“Public Law 88-352,” 1964, p. 1).
Title VII is the longest and the most seminal and comprehensive in the entire document. It clearly outlines what is and what is not an “unlawful discriminatory practice”, mainly focusing on the rights of both employees and employers. The greatest value of the act’s Title VII is that it covers all private and government employers with a staff of no fewer than 25 permanent employees – something that the previous employment legislation had failed to do. Such employers, pursuant to the law, cannot discharge or terminate, refuse to hire, or refuse to compensate, deny advancement possibility or otherwise discriminate employees based on their demographics (“Public Law 88-352,” 1964). Similarly, it prohibits retaliatory layoffs or other retaliatory measures against those who complain about unfair employment practices. While the act entitled employers to apply different conditions of employment and different standards of compensation “pursuant to a bona fide superiority or merit system” (“Public Law 88-352,” 1964), it prohibited to do so on the grounds of employee’s race, color, religion, sex and/or national origin.
Although Title VII does not entitle victims of employment discrimination to file suits, it has created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with the goal of enforcing equal employment rights. The commission has consistently divulged guidelines for the private sector that assists business in determining which employment practices are not lawful. Likewise, the EEOC has taken legal charge against employers on behalf of victims of employment discrimination. Cihon and Castagnera (2016) explain that the EEOC can initiate action against employers even if the employer and the employee signed a pre-dispute arbitration clause.
Another major effect of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was that it accorded several meaningful remedies to victims of discrimination. Thus, the act enabled the EEOC to award back pay to victims of discrimination for any wages they lost, to issue injunctions so as to prevent the employer from continuing discrimination, to demand the reinstatement of dismissed or demoted employees to their previous positions, to demand the employee to compensate various damages incurred by victims of employment discrimination (“Public Law 88-352,” 1964). The subsequent amendments to the act, including those in 1991, introduced punitive damages for especially reckless and severe cases of discrimination (Amar, 2007). In addition, the protections granted by the 1964 Civil Rights Act were subsequently extended to prohibit employment discrimination based on age, pregnancy, etc. Similarly, the act served as a springboard for the rise of the concepts of affirmative action, disparate treatment and disparate impact, each making its own contributions to the fight against employment discrimination.
Impact of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on Society
With the new laws and policies in place, the hitherto discriminated strata of American population faced brighter employment opportunities. Wright (2015) argues that the socioeconomic status of African Americans, in particular, “began to improve at an accelerated pace after passage of the Civil Rights Act” (p. 766). The improvement was most perceptible in the South, because racial segregation in the pre-1964 Civil Rights Act times was most persistent in this part of America. As an example, Wright (2015) adduces statistical data to show that the share of blacks in textile industry of the South increased abruptly from about 5% in 1963 to about 16% in 1970. The percentage of black females in the same industry rose commensurately, from about 1% in 1963 to over 12% in the early 1970s (Wright, 2015). The situation was similar across other industries in the South. Intimidated by injunctions and other measures by the EEOC, employers across the country became more enthusiastic about hiring nonwhites and women and about extending equal working conditions and standards of compensation to them. The median annual income of blacks, for example, rose from an estimated $6,000 in 1960 to about $15,000 in 1970 in 2005 dollar terms (Wright, 2015).
In addition to employment, the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbade discrimination on the basis of color, race, religion, or national origin in schools and other public places (“Public Law 88-352,” 1964). The adoption of the act stimulated a series of court rulings that demanded affirmative actions for the desegregation of public accommodations, even those owned by the private sector. African Americans, women and other discriminated groups received the greater access to services that had been previously something of a taboo for them. The act also improved the situation around voting rights of the hitherto disenfranchised Americans. Willmar Minn (2014) of The Huffington Post avers that “voter registration of the eligible black population” swelled from less than 7% in 1965 to over 70% in 1967. Looking back at the impact of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with the benefit of retrospective vision, it appears that the act did not end the discrimination of the target groups, but it clearly alleviated the plight of those individuals, entitling them to seek legal redress for any acts of discrimination and civil rights violations. Ultimately, the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act contributed to the achievement of a sense of national coherence in the nation that was divided in many respects.
The adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself. Indeed, the act was the first truly comprehensive piece of legislation in the US that actually addressed the civil rights needs of the oppressed and vulnerable categories of American citizens. The act delivered a punishable blow to the oppressive Jim Crow laws in America’s South and prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sex, color, race, religion and/or national origin. Beyond employment, it prohibited the segregation in such public facilities as schools, universities, swimming pools, transportation, etc. Another major strength of the act was the creation of the EEOC to oversee its implementation. The fact that the EEOC was entrusted with a comparatively broad array of powers and legal means to confront any kind of discrimination proscribed by the act. The 1964 Civil Rights Act paved the way for equality of men and women, white and nonwhite Americans in all spheres of public and private life. In addition, the act served as an instrument to eradicate the ossified thinking of supremacist whites, avowed segregationists and simply nonchalant Americans, thereby precipitating the process of America’s social unification.
Although hailed as a landmark document by the public and critics, the 1964 Civil Rights Act had considerable limitations. For example, Title VII of the act declared that employers preserved the rights to employ individuals on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion and/or national origin in those cases, where “religion, sex or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise” (“Public Law 88-352,” 1964, p. 1). Similarly, the text of the act contained other disingenuous loopholes, such as the provision that employers could use “professionally developed ability tests” and “bona fide seniority or merit” systems, as long as employers could prove that the application of these tests and systems served the legitimate interests on their business (“Public Law 88-352,” 1964, p. 1). However, these actually were just pitiful chicaneries that enabled the perpetuation of employment discrimination.
Another major weakness of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is that it has failed to completely eradicate employment discrimination on the basis of color, race, sex, religion and/or national origin. Discrimination has subsided substantially in some spheres of employment. Yet, quantitative studies indicate that employment decisions are still often made on race-based and gender-based lines. A study by Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004), for example, has shown that job applicants with white-sounding names received callbacks from companies about 50% more often that job applicants with black-sounding names. The fact that the researchers sent out 5,000 resumes allows one to make generalizations about the desirability of black and white workers in their companies.
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In the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s adoption, American legislators made many efforts to complement the act to reinforce its effectiveness. The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, for example, forbade employment discrimination on the basis of age. Yet, even the subsequent legislation has not covered all spheres of employment legislation. For example, sexual orientation still does not qualify as a protected employment category, even though employment decisions are often based on employee’s sexual orientation. Hence, regardless of what individuals think about homosexuality, employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should be most certainly outlawed.
Likewise, it is essential that amendments should be made to tackle other weaknesses of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. For example, loopholes described in the previous section should be eliminated to reduce employment discrimination. Eliminating these loopholes would deprive employers of legal grounds for discrimination.
This paper has shown that the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a much-anticipated event in the US. Women, African Americans and other discriminated groups were excluded not only from employment opportunities, but also from other spheres of public life. Whenever they were employed, they received lower wages and inadequate work benefits. The pre-1964 Civil Rights Act piecemeal actions failed to bring about equality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, in its present form, was put forward by President Kennedy back in 1963. After a hectic period of legislative wrangling, the act was finally adopted, signaling a new era in the sphere of employment. Title VII of the act prohibited employment discrimination, based on race, color, sex, religion, and/or national gender. Most importantly, it established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and vested it with vast powers to confront employment discrimination. As a corollary of this, employment discrimination in the US began to recede. Likewise, it improved social standing of the hitherto discriminated Americans in other ways by increasing their access to public accommodations. Yet, despite all of the achievements, the act leaves some room for further improvements. Measures need to be taken to eliminate the glaring loopholes in the act and to extend its scope.