Originally published on my Medium on January 28th, 2017.
Perspectives from the Son of Two Civil Rights Lawyers
Last Saturday, on January 21st, 2017, women (and men) in all 50 states, as well as 50+ countries around the world, marched for gender equality. Their marches were a protest of the new American President Donald Trump, and his misogynist, exclusionary dialogue (monologue?) regarding gender rights in the U.S.
The marches were a resounding success, drawing more than 3 million people worldwide, and painting my social media feeds—and those of everyone I know—pink with solidarity. And for a moment—a day—it seemed that scores of people saw what I see every day.
My parents are civil rights attorneys—they have a combined 70+ years worth of experience practicing sexual harassment and employment discrimination law, and are barred (i.e. licensed to practice law) in 3 states. They’ve litigated at most levels, from state court all the way up to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on numerous occasions.
As a result, I grew up seeing the disgusting misogyny and sexism (not to mention racism, and most every other “-ism” you can think of) that so many people seemed intent on banishing last weekend. From the time I was in grade school, terms like “Title VII,” “Title IX,” and “EEOC” were words thrown around the dinner table as my parents discussed research for cases they were working on.
Now those words seem to be sinking into the consciousness of Americans on a much broader scale, and that in itself is a good thing. But it’s not the only thing, and we must not become complacent.
The reality is that as wonderful as marches are, they don’t achieve anything by their own virtue beyond creating awareness and emotion. How many people marched against the Vietnam War in the ‘70s? Millions. Did it force Nixon to pull out of Vietnam? No.
The power in marches and collective support is not in their ability to force legal changes—it is in their power to force lawmakers who otherwise would ignore the problems to pay attention and address those issues.
That is the understanding that we must have moving forward after last weekend. If we pat ourselves on the back, and simply drift back to where we were, then nothing changes; Trump is still President, the Congress is still hyper-Conservative, and women’s rights, minority rights, and LGBTQ rights are still in danger and under siege.
Change comes in conviction to speak out for others when there isn’t a big march to attend. It comes in the courage to hold people accountable for sexist policies and discriminatory laws, regardless of the size of the institution or the extent of their war-chest. The precedent for holding public policy-makers accountable is well-established:
- Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 US 424 (1971) — Decided that certain education requirements and intelligence tests used as conditions of employment acted to exclude African-American job applicants, did not relate to job performance, and were prohibited.
- McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 US 792 (1973) — Laid out a formula for a finding of discrimination where there is no admission.
- Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 US 248 (1981) — Laid out that the plaintiff always bears the burden of proof, and sets a finding of context for allegations of discrimination.
- Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 US 57 (1986) — Found that a claim of “hostile environment” sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that may be brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Ellerth/Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 US 775 (1998) — Decided that employers need to have an anti-harassment policy which is communicated/distributed to all employees, which tells employees who they can complain to if they are being harassed. Once a complaint has been received, the employer has the obligation to address the harassment claim, and take action if the complaint is founded.
And these are only a few of the cases which have become a part of Title VII and Title IX jurisprudence.
Thus it falls to us, in the days, weeks, and months after these marches to keep our focus clear. All the pink hats in the world and all the pictures of people gathered to march will mean nothing if no policy is affected by it.
If there continues to be the same gender-based wage-gap, diversity disparity, and dismissal of sexual harassment claims and grievances, we will have achieved nothing of consequence beyond snapping some great pictures for our social media.
The amazing thing is that it appears to me as if we really do live in a new era. It’s not 2002 anymore—LGBTQ rights matter to people (outside the LGBTQ community) on a scale they arguably never have before. Focus on sexual harassment and discrimination seems to be ticking up as ability to document and share these grievances has grown. More women and minorities serve in all facets of our lives than we’ve ever experienced—from politics, to business, to law, medicine, athletics, and the arts.
Now, the next step after making people aware, and care about these issues, is to make sure than something gets done. We’ve had the high of seeing that millions of people care, and were willing to brave the rain and cold to have their voices heard. We’ve seen that those people don’t just live in New York City and San Francisco, but live all over the country (and the world!)—in Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Anchorage, Miami, Chicago, Boise, Billings, Denver, and Philadelphia.
So with all of this in mind, let’s do something about it. Companies and universities should be actively seeking out attorneys with experience in discrimination and sex harassment law to coach their HR departments—to help them understand Title VII and Title IX, and set proper parameters for their employees based on these legal codes. More understanding and higher accountability means fewer cases, and fewer cases means less money that needs to be spent in litigation. And that’s not to mention the PR perks of high accountability and an egalitarian environment.
With all of the news this weekend regarding Trump’s new Muslim ban (that’s definitely coming up in another essay), it can be easy to forget the message which was loudly sent a week ago. But we need to keep pressure on the pulse of discrimination, and drive steadfastly towards gender equality if we’re ever going to fully achieve it. Egalitarianism and meritocracy are rights deserved by all, but it will take hard work to make it a reality.