Breaking Down the Binary: The Impact of the Civil Rights Act on Latino Communities

Mayra Joachin and Marisol Ramirez

The historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[1] happened a little over 50 years ago. Many in the civil rights world have scrutinized the outcomes that those 50 years have yielded, with much of the conversation focusing on the impact on the African American community. This paints the picture of a Black/White binary that perpetually frames many civil rights conversations in America. However, the Civil Rights Act has had an impact on a range of minority groups, including Latinos.

The perceived purposes of the Act are part of the reason why the Black/White binary frequently appears in conversations about the Civil Rights Act. One main purpose is the protection of minorities, specifically African Americans. For example, in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the Supreme Court interpreted Title VII of the Act and found that practices that on their face seemed neutral but served to maintain the status quo of prior discrimination could not pass muster under the Act.[2] The Court found that Title VII aims to achieve equality of employment opportunity and to “remove barriers that have operated in the past to favor an identifiable group of white employees over other employees.”[3] These “other employees” are often assumed to be African American employees. For example, the Court stated that “practices, procedures, or tests neutral on their face, and even neutral in terms of intent, cannot be maintained if they operate to ‘freeze’ the status quo of prior discriminatory employment practices.”[4] In 1971, the status quo that concerned the Court referred to the current effects that past discriminatory practices had on the lives of African Americans.

The Supreme Court was more explicit in the case of United Steelworkers of America v. Weber,[5] which involved a Title VII challenge to an employer’s use of an affirmative action program when hiring craftworks.[6] In finding the employer’s practice to be in line with Title VII, the Court stated that the primary concern of Title VII was the plight of African Americans in the United States economy.[7] In particular, Justice Brennan stated that “[i]t would be ironic indeed if a law triggered by a Nation’s concern over centuries of racial injustice” would also constitute “the first legislative prohibition of all voluntary, private, race-conscious efforts to abolish traditional patterns of racial segregation.”[8] Again, the Court’s concern with the plight of African Americans, “centuries of racial injustice,” and “traditional patterns of racial segregation,” signaled a primary concern with African Americans.

Image via PBS.org.
Image via PBS.org.

The focus on the relationship between Black and White Americans over the past 50 years is a natural outcome in light of historical factors. In the political campaign for the Civil Rights Act, organizers rallied around the racial inequality that had become increasingly entrenched since the passage of the Reconstruction amendments.[9] The Act has improved the status of African Americans in various ways despite all the progress that still needs to be done.[10] However, while the Act also barred discrimination in general, the impact it has had on the Latino community has had a less resounding presence in civil rights discourse.

The Latino community’s voice was present in civil rights rhetoric even before the Act’s passage in 1964. In 1954, the Supreme Court in Hernandez v. Texas rejected the notion that the Fourteenth Amendment is “directed solely against discrimination due to a ‘two-class theory’—that is, based upon differences between ‘white’ and Negro.”[11] This landmark decision struck down discrimination along ethnic distinctions, determining that a group of individuals of Mexican descent constituted a separate class from whites and deserved equal protection.[12] Of equal significance was Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County,[13] a suit brought by Mexican-American parents challenging the segregationist practices of California schools which California provisions authorized. In this precedent to Brown v. Board of Education,[14] the California Supreme Court outlawed the defendant school districts’ segregationist practices, finding that placing Latino students in separate schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection doctrine.[15] The passage of the Civil Rights Act legitimized and expanded the protection of the rights of Latinos across multiple contexts, including in the fields of voting, education, and immigration.

Historically, Latino communities have often been equally disenfranchised as African Americans due to racial discrimination. The Court in League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) v. Perry reiterated that “the political, social, and economic legacy of past discrimination for Latinos in Texas” prevented them from “participat[ing] effectively in the political process.”[16] Texas had a “long, well-documented history of discrimination” that affected the rights of Latinos “to register, to vote, or to participate otherwise in the electoral process.”[17] Consequently, the LULAC Court rejected the Texas statute because its redrawing of district lines resulted in the vote dilution of the Latino community—a class whom the Court emphasized required an equal opportunity to exercise its political power.

Image via DailyCal.org.
Image via DailyCal.org.

In the contemporary education context, several enactments have attempted to violate the civil rights of Latino communities by discriminating based on immigration status. In Plyler v. Doe,[18] a Texas statute discriminated against undocumented Latino public school students in all grades by withholding state funds from public schools that educated unlawfully present students, and by allowing the school districts to deny enrollment to undocumented students.[19] The Supreme Court held that the undocumented plaintiffs were entitled to the benefit of equal protection because a state could not deny children an elementary education in furtherance of a legitimate state’s interest.[20] Despite the Plyler holding, several states have continued attempting to discriminate against Latino students based on their immigration status. In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, which banned undocumented students from attending California’s public grade schools.[21] Proposition 187 never went into effect, as it was enjoined by a federal court before it became effective.

Similarly, in 2012 the Eleventh Circuit struck down Alabama’s House Bill 56, the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, in part because it violated the Equal Protection Clause.[22] House Bill 56 operated similarly to Proposition 187 since one of its sections, section 28, enabled schools to collect data to determine the immigration status of its students and also forbade public schools from enrolling unlawfully present children.[23] Although section 28’s focus was to regulate the process of collecting data of the school’s students, the Court nonetheless found that it “significantly interfere[d] with the exercise” of a child’s elementary education.[24] These outcomes evidence the court’s reluctance to allow states to discriminate against students on the basis of national origin.

The intersection between immigration and civil rights continues to plague approximately eleven to twelve million undocumented immigrants who live “in the shadows of American life.”[25] Although Plyler recognized that undocumented individuals residing in the United States have civil rights, various civil rights issues arise in current state immigration laws. The most common type of discrimination is based on national origin, where laws discriminate against Latino communities through racial profiling. Both Arizona and Alabama have enacted laws that require law enforcement officers to inquire into the immigration status of individuals for whom they have a reasonable suspicion.[26] In striking down both statutes, the Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit enforced the notion that discrimination on racial or ethnic grounds is impermissible, though this has sometimes been justified through preemption rather than an equal protection analysis.[27]

While Plyler and other holdings suggest that courts will consider a civil rights framework when undocumented Latino communities encounter impermissible forms of discrimination, in the immigration context alone it is unclear what a modern-day civil rights agenda would be. Questions remain as to whether undocumented Latinos can raise claims seeking justice and political incorporation into a full membership model that were raised during the Civil Rights Movement.[28] Under the traditional civil rights framework, which demands full incorporation into the social life and political process, it is unlikely that undocumented Latino communities can prevail over discriminatory immigration laws by resorting to the civil rights claims that have been successful in the education and voting contexts. Despite this limited applicability of the civil rights framework, the principles embodied by the passage of the Civil Rights Act continue to improve the opportunity to seek an equal and just application of the law for Latino communities.


[1] Pub. L. No. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241 (1964).

[2] 401 U.S. 424, 430 (1971).

[3] Id. at 429-30.

[4] Id. at 430.

[5] 443 U.S. 193 (1979).

[6] Id. at 197-200.

[7] Id. at 202.

[8] Id. at 204.

[9] See Sheryll D. Cashin, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Coalition Politics, 49 St. Louis U. L.J. 1029, 1036 (2005) (detailing efforts of groups to pass the Act, mostly notably African American groups).

[10] Id. at 1032-33 (highlighting the impact of the Act on African Americans and other minorities).

[11] 347 U.S. 475, 478 (1954); see also Teaching Tolerance, Latino Civil Rights Timeline, 1903 to 2006, http://www.tolerance.org/latino-civil-rights-timeline (last visited June 12, 2015).

[12] Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954).

[13] 64 F. Supp. 544 (1946).

[14] 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

[15] Mendez, 64 F. Supp. at 549 (“The equal protection of the laws pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, text books and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality.”).

[16] 548 U.S. 399 (2006) (citing Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986)) (internal citation omitted).

[17] LULAC, 548 U.S. at 439.

[18] 457 U.S. 202 (1982).

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] See American Civil Liberties Union, CA’s Anti-Immigrant Proposition 187 is Voided, Ending State’s Five-Year Battle with ACLU, Rights Groups (July 29, 1999), https://www.aclu.org/news/cas-anti-immigrant-proposition-187-voided-ending-states-five-year-battle-aclu-rights-groups.

[22] Hispanic Interest Coal. of Alabama v. Gov. of Alabama, 691 F.3d 1236, 1240 (11th Cir. 2012).

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 1245.

[25] President George W. Bush, President Bush Proposes New Temporary Worker Program: Remarks by the President on Immigration Policy (Jan. 7, 2004), available at http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2004/01/20040107-3.html (describing that undocumented immigrants residing in the United States “end up in the shadows of American life”).

[26] Kevin R. Johnson, Sweet Home Alabama? Immigration and Civil Rights in the “New” South, 64 Stan. L. Rev. Online 22 (Dec. 5, 2011), available at http://www.stanfordlawreview.org/online/sweet-home-alabama.

[27] See Arizona v. U.S., 132 S.Ct. 2492, 2510 (2012) (“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law. . . . The United States has established that §§ 3, 5(C), and 6 of S.B. 1070 are preempted.”).

[28] See Cristina Rodriguez, Immigration and the Civil Rights Agenda, 6 Stan. J. C.R. & C.L. 125, 128-29 (2010) (questioning the appropriateness of a civil rights paradigm to immigration reform movements). At the core of the civil rights paradigm were demands for full incorporation into the social life and political process, as guaranteed by the Constitution. Undocumented Latinos, however, are unable to demand a Constitutionally protected right to equal citizenship due to “the fact that millions of Latinos in the United States remain politically powerless because of their citizenship status.” Id. at 131. As such, they are unable to successfully claim full membership into a society that denies them equal citizenship.

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