Complaint Based Civil Rights Laws are Designed to Provide Few Civil Rights

Civil rights laws including the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are developed by Congress to largely depend on the public filing complaints with the government and/or suing violators. Passage of these laws is accompanied with lots of fanfare and celebration. Politicians brag about their commitment to civil rights, equality, and equity. Community groups thank politicians and hope for the best. Decades later, those of us who are honest accept a sad truth. Those laws didn’t result in nearly the equality and equity as we were promised. Those of us who understand America realize that the laws, as they always do, worked as intended. They were not passed to afford much more protection. They were adopted to give the appearance of a society making incremental progress while actually affording systematically oppressed people little in the way of legal protection.

More than 30 years after passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, people with disabilities are far more likely to be unemployed, undereducated, and living in poverty than people without disabilities. A great deal of web content is inaccessible, not usable, or both. The vast majority of local governments never even attempted a self-evaluation (which is the key to accessibility under Title II).

I hope everyone understands how little has changed for people of color in the 58 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. About 20 years after entities receiving federal money were to develop language access plans ensuring those who have limited English proficiency can access services and more equitably participate in society, very few recipients of federal money have language access plans. Even though the law has required it for decades, the environmental justice impact of projects on communities of color is not often considered.

All of this noncompliance and the resulting continued discrimination is due, in part, to the way the laws were designed. In most instances, nothing is done about civil rights violations–even systemic violations–unless someone files a complaint. In far too many instances, even that’s not enough. In many cases, the only chance one really has to get redress for civil rights violations is to sue.

Obviously, very few people have the capacity to sue. Most people don’t know how to file an official complaint. Even if they can file a complaint, they don’t know how to file and pursue their complaint so they have the best chance of success.

Simply put, most people cannot seek justice when their civil rights are violated. The laws supposedly protecting their civil rights were designed to make it all but impossible for most people to defend their civil rights.

Requiring someone to understand and be able to articulate violations of their civil rights so they satisfy prongs of legal tests should be seen as facially unfair. Asking them to figure out which agency has jurisdiction over what and what each agency has established as a complaint process is absurd. Asking people to spend years in a protracted lawsuit requires time, money, and skill people shouldn’t be expected to have to enforce their legal protections.

The sad truth is that laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have failed to achieve the kinds of accessibility, equality, and equity politicians pretend they guarantee is because politicians working for the corporate masters and to protect the systems of opprression that enrich them and their corporate masters design civil rights laws so they have little chance of resulting in many tangible civil rights gains.

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