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5.1 What Are Civil Rights and How Do We Identify Them?

The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment gives all people and groups in the United States the right to be treated equally regardless of individual attributes. That logic has been expanded in the twenty-first century to cover attributes such as race, color, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. People may still be treated unequally by the government, but only if there is at least a rational basis for it, such as a disability that makes a person unable to perform the essential functions required by a job, or if a person is too young to be trusted with an important responsibility, like driving safely. If the characteristic on which discrimination is based is related to sex, race, or ethnicity, the reason for it must serve, respectively, an important government interest or a compelling government interest.

5.2 The African American Struggle for Equality

Following the Civil War and the freeing of all enslaved people by the Thirteenth Amendment, a Republican Congress hoped to protect the freedmen from vengeful southern White people by passing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, granting them citizenship and guaranteeing equal protection under the law and the right to vote (for Black men). The end of Reconstruction, however, allowed White Southerners to regain control of the South’s political and legal system and institute openly discriminatory Jim Crow laws. While some early efforts to secure civil rights were successful, the greatest gains came after World War II. Through a combination of lawsuits, Congressional acts, and direct action (such as President Truman’s executive order to desegregate the U.S. military), African Americans regained their voting rights and were guaranteed protection against discrimination in employment. Schools and public accommodations were desegregated. While much has been achieved, the struggle for equal treatment continues.

5.3 The Fight for Women’s Rights

At the time of the Revolution and for many decades following it, married women had no right to control their own property, vote, or run for public office. Beginning in the 1840s, a women’s movement began among women who were active in the abolition and temperance movements. Although some of their goals, such as achieving property rights for married women, were reached early on, their biggest goal—winning the right to vote—required the 1920 passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Women secured more rights in the 1960s and 1970s, such as reproductive rights and the right not to be discriminated against in employment or education. Women continue to face many challenges: they are still paid less than men and are underrepresented in executive positions and elected office.

5.4 Civil Rights for Indigenous Groups: Native Americans, Alaskans, and Hawaiians

At the beginning of U.S. history, Indians were considered citizens of sovereign nations and thus ineligible for citizenship, and they were forced off their ancestral lands and onto reservations. Interest in Indian rights arose in the late nineteenth century, and in the 1930s, Native Americans were granted a degree of control over reservation lands and the right to govern themselves. Following World War II, they won greater rights to govern themselves, educate their children, decide how tribal lands should be used—to build casinos, for example—and practice traditional religious rituals without federal interference. Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians have faced similar difficulties, but since the 1960s, they have been somewhat successful in having lands restored to them or obtaining compensation for their loss. Despite these achievements, members of these groups still tend to be less educated, less likely to be employed, and more likely to have addictions or to be incarcerated than other racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

5.5 Equal Protection for Other Groups

Many Hispanic and Latino people were deprived of their right to vote and forced to attend segregated schools. Asian Americans were also segregated and sometimes banned from immigrating to the United States. The achievements of the African American civil rights movement, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, benefited these groups, however, and Latinos and Asians also brought lawsuits on their own behalf. Many, like the Chicano youth of the Southwest, also engaged in direct action. This brought important gains, especially in education. Recent concerns over immigration have resulted in renewed attempts to discriminate against Latinos, however.

For a long time, fear of discovery kept many LGBTQ people closeted and thus hindered their efforts to form a united response to discrimination. Since World War II, however, the LGBTQ community has achieved the right to same-sex marriage and protection from discrimination in other areas of life as well. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, has recognized the equal rights of people with disabilities to employment, transportation, and access to public education. People with disabilities still face much discrimination, however, and LGBTQ people are frequently victims of hate crimes.

Some of the most serious forms of discrimination today are directed at religious minorities like Muslims, and many conservative Christians believe the recognition of LGBTQ rights threatens their religious freedoms.

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