Discrimination: Fight urge to accept 'existing disparity'

April 10, 2014 

David Adler

Former President Jimmy Carter, whose tenure in the White House remains under-appreciated despite his stewardship of the environment and his achievements in foreign affairs matters in the Middle East and China, continues to carve out a niche as the most important ex-president in U.S. history. The author of two dozen books, the nation's carpenter-in-chief as founder of Habitat for Humanity, and champion of human rights and health issues across the globe, the 89-year-old Georgian now has brought his indefatigable energy and renewed leadership to the cause of civil rights and the fight against discrimination in America.

Speaking on the opening day of a summit meeting in Austin, Texas, where Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush joined President Barack Obama to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, it fell to the sturdy octogenarian to sound a trumpet call: America is "still falling short" in the promotion of racial equality. He lamented that "too many are at ease with the existing disparity" between blacks and whites in such critical areas as education and employment.

The elimination of discrimination, a haunting presence in the life of our nation since its founding, whether reflective of race or gender inequalities, as well as discrimination based on sexual orientation, remains the great challenge confronting Americans if they truly value the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence or the premise and promise of equal protection enshrined in the 14th Amendment. At this crucial juncture, when stunning evidence reveals the sweeping abuse of women - rape on college campuses, sex trafficking of women and young girls across the globe and pay discrimination in the workplace - we ought to ask: Can America look at itself in the mirror?

Legislative and executive efforts at both the state and federal levels have fallen short in combating discrimination against women in the workforce. In a valuable action, President Obama signed this week an executive order barring federal contractors from penalizing employees who discuss their compensation, an effort to promote transparency in the cause of equal pay for women. The limited scope of that measure pales in comparison to the potential of a broader, more far-reaching initiative - the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act - but that was stymied by Senate Republicans. The campaign against discrimination, which ought to have transcendent appeal, should not turn on partisan politics, but it often has fallen prey to party interests and electoral concerns.

The battle on behalf of victims of gender discrimination has been waged from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Vigilance in the pursuit of gender equality has produced victories that have dotted the map and the political landscape across America. As Idahoans recall, the Gem State was the source of a legal battle, Reed v. Reed, that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 and led to a landmark ruling that struck down arbitrary gender distinctions between men and women as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Reed, which was brought to court by the renowned Idaho attorney Alan Derr, was a turning point in American law. It was the first time the court had upheld a woman's complaint that she had suffered unconstitutional gender discrimination. That transformative decision, initiated in Idaho, reminds us that great civil rights battles can be waged in any corner of our nation. The key, as Carter reminded his audience, is that Americans must not be "at ease with existing disparity."

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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