Discrimination, Prejudice and the Law
When the U.S. Supreme Court makes decisions, it is to enforce and clarify the limits of the law. We, the people, rejoice when legal decisions come our way or compliment our point of view. When those decisions are not aligned with our way of thinking, we complain.
In 1965, the Civil Rights Act and other laws that were passed which resulted in advancements in opportunity and equal rights based on race, ethnicity, and gender. In response to the Civil Rights and women’s movements, many states eased their laws restricting abortion and in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision improved women’s access to reproductive health care by legalizing abortion and asserting a woman’s constitutional right to control her own body and make decisions about her fertility. In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court made two decisions that improved access to marriage rights for same-sex couples.
In each set of decisions, some people applauded the changes, some protested.
In terms of the societal effects, the legacies of these legal decisions are easily seen in the myriad of statistics you have seen discussed here and elsewhere.
Statistics show positive changes in the achievements of African Americans and Latinos – even though complete parity has not yet been achieved. The pay gap between men and women and many other measures of women’s achievements show some improvement, although complete parity has not yet been achieved.
Reproductive rights (and improved reproductive technologies) have supported some of those improvements - and health status – for women as they have more effective control over their fertility in concert with professional medical care, especially in times of distress or danger. Same-sex marriage has already been legal in many states (and other countries) thus we can expect that the major change as a result of those decisions is that more couples will be married.
Each of these legal decisions relates to different types of discrimination that occurred and that were sometimes fueled or accompanied by prejudice.
Discrimination is a behavior, it is considered to be unequal treatment of specific people based on their apparent membership or affiliation in some specific social group. Prejudice is an attitude or idea about a specific social group that all people in that group have some specific characteristic or trait.
The Civil Rights legislation changed society by reducing the potential for discrimination; yet did it reduce prejudice?
Some might say yes, since the very fact of passing such laws teaches us (and future generations) what is appropriate and what is not. Studies have found that overt racial prejudice has lessened over time.
Others might say no, since people may continue to judge others and assume that group traits exist – and treat people according to those beliefs.
For example, inter-racial marriage was one of the advances of the civil rights era – does that mean that people are fine with the fact that people can marry people of other races? Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court case that invalidated the state laws prohibiting interracial marriage, was decided in 1967. The last state to go through the process to take their law off the books was Alabama in 1999 – and 40% of those who voted felt that they should keep the law even though it is unconstitutional.
Has sexism been reduced as a result of these social movements and legal decisions? While it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex or gender, we still have plenty of evidence that women are not perceived as equal to men. Witness the pay gap, achievement differences and barriers in many different venues, violence and victimization rates, ongoing issues with health care access, and many other areas of life.
Thus, the recent Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage will allow for such marriages to resume in California – but they will not necessarily result in eradicating homophobia. Much as we still have people with racial and sexist prejudice, we will likely still have people with heterosexist prejudice. We can legislate behavior but not attitudes.
From what you have been learning in your sociology class, can we reduce prejudice? Can attitudes be changed to better align with our societal ideals of equality and justice?