Do We Need Government to Fight Discrimination?

Do We Need Government to Fight Discrimination?

Do We Need Government to Fight Discrimination?

Bringing social justice to scale means using those institutions that can set and enforce equity standards on race, gender, sexuality, and more.


People hold signs as they protest against Senate Bill 1070 outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona April 25, 2010. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Following a lecture I gave once, a student with a vaguely libertarian perspective asked, Is it possible to end discrimination without building up government? She didn’t like discrimination, but she also disliked interference in people’s lives. Ingrained in an organizing tradition that relies on government as the main locus of change, I actually had to think. Could we win racial justice without much government?

Fighting discrimination requires setting standards for both individual and collective behavior, educating everyone about those standards and ultimately creating some consequence for violating them. This young woman’s question implied that a society can generate compliance with such standards through volunteerism, an individual embrace of colorblind or gender-neutral ways of dealing with neighbors, students and employees.

But government provides critical pathways to participation in setting such standards, as well as to recourses when they are not met. Those pathways allow us to bring equity efforts to scale through specific policies. Without that system, we would have to rely on the good intentions of people within the private sector who are largely unaware of their biases and who would have neither the incentive nor the capacity to set or enforce high standards. Influencing intention doesn’t give us enough leverage over how institutions run. What’s more, white supremacy and patriarchy go back a long way. The human brain has, over many generations, wired itself to accept a certain amount of subjugation. This is why, many years after the end of slavery and the enfranchisement of women, Americans taking the Project Implicit test, which was designed to reveal our biases, will find their reactions to images of black people and women far less favorable than they expect. It is entirely possible to disadvantage particular groups of people without explicit animus.

Government represents a huge number of institutions and sets the rules for a huge number more. These institutions are key to closing discrimination gaps based on race, gender, sexuality, national status, disability and age. Such institutions reflect the power relations of a society, but they also provide important leverage points for changing those relations. The change process is iterative. The dominant trends of a society change as a result of organized pressure. When government changes some, it fuels more change in society, and the government then changes a bit more. This is why, throughout our nation’s history, fighters for equity have worked to gain access to and influence all forms of local, state and federal government.

One such fight led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, color or religion. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established in this clause, but initially it had only education, outreach, technical assistance and mediation to work with. In 1972 Congress granted the EEOC the power to sue discriminatory employers. Over subsequent decades, disability and age were added to the list of causes. Today, the EEOC handles some 100,000 complaints per year. No employer welcomes its attention—nor do local governments. In Minneapolis, an alliance called the Educational Equity Opportunity Coalition convinced its school board to conduct a racial economic and cultural assessment of a decision to close two schools that served Somali children. The schools were consolidated and as a result one kept open.

Some argue that government is so corrupt that it will always betray us, citing the fact that we are forced to defend “things we won forty years ago” like abortion, affirmative action and voting rights. But what makes us think that the beneficiaries of privilege will live happily with its loss? We have to play defense and offense at the same time. Whether we win a change in the rules at City Hall or in the boardroom, we will always have to defend it. At least in the realm of government, we have victories to defend.

Consider the example of domestic workers. Before the Civil War, chattel slavery allowed white “property” owners to steal the labor and sexuality of black women. Emancipation ended that ownership on paper, and during Reconstruction black Americans gained political office and economic grounding; over those eleven years, sixteen African-Americans served in Congress, and more than 600 were elected to state legislatures. For a time, black domestic workers could sell their labor like anyone else, exercise options against an abusive employer and move into other livelihoods. But Jim Crow segregation, and its softer Northern versions, pushed them back into subservient positions. As he set up the key policies of the New Deal, FDR crafted compromises to get Southern support, which left these women out of Social Security and labor protections. The rules on Social Security were reversed in the 1950s, but the overtime regulation is only now on the table for change.

Today’s domestic workers could not hope to expand their rights without strong government. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is a core element of their policy platform; it clarifies that domestic workers are in an employment relationship with families, and that labor law applies in all such situations. Domestic Workers United won the first bill in New York two years ago, and the California alliance is close to winning a similar policy in California. Without government, domestic workers would have to go one by one to get employers to do the right thing by acting against their own self-interest. They would have to rely on Hollywood movies like The Help to raise awareness and on civic organizations to change behavior. No one in that list actually enforces correct action, nor does any institution systemically address the collective caregiving needs of families.

There are 2.5 million domestic workers in this country. Significant progress cannot be made employer by employer. Domestic workers and their supporters have more options for shaping private behavior using democratically influenced institutions through which the word goes out, and the consequences of noncompliance are made real.

Alternatives exist. Some corporations have adopted practices that shrink racial and gender gaps. Some religious institutions and nonprofits provide shelter, food, healthcare and education to people in need. Some media outlets have worked to raise awareness and encourage action. But for all these examples, there are many more companies that cheat workers and consumers; hospitals that deny critical care; and the most ubiquitous media outlets are still selling images of the dark criminal, the tragic slut and the heroic vigilante. As broken as our democracy is, none of these other options provide a way for the public to participate in its decisions.

Government can either reinforce an every-man-for-himself ethic or the idea that we are all in it together. There is nothing inherently corrupt about government, and the best way to shape it for collective good is to treat it as the critical site of struggle and change that it is.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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