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Civil Rights and Discrimination Glossary

As with many other legal topics, civil rights may sometimes have its own language. The law about civil rights and discrimination is pervasive and complicated. Some standard terms and phrases often arise in civil rights cases.

ADA: Stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA protects people with disabilities from discrimination in many aspects of life, including employment, education, and public accommodations.

ADEA: Short for the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The ADEA is a federal law prohibiting age discrimination for workers over 40. Only employers with over 20 employees must follow the ADEA.

Affirmative Action policies: Affirmative Action helps groups discriminated against based on race or gender. These policies aim to address many historical inequalities by giving opportunities to underrepresented groups.

AG: Stands for attorney general, usually referring to the U.S. Attorney General. The AG often becomes involved in civil rights and discrimination claims. The US Attorney General's office can file suits for a victim of discrimination or harassment.

At-will: "At-will" employment means companies can fire an employee for any reason or no reason at all. But, even an at-will employee deserves the protection of anti-discrimination laws. If a boss fires an employee violating anti-discrimination laws, they may be able to bring a lawsuit against the former employer.

B.F.O.Q.: Short for the phrase "bona fide occupational qualification." In the employment discrimination context, a BFOQ may absolve an employer from liability for discrimination when there is a legitimate reason to have all the employees working a particular job be of the same sex or age. An employer's successful use of a BFOQ defense is rare in discrimination cases.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas: A historic civil rights case where the Supreme Court held that school segregation violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. On May 17, 1954, this unanimous court ruling by the Supreme Court overturned the court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which held that "separate but equal" facilities were legal.

Black Power Movement: The Black Power movement emerged during the Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Black Power movement was more an ideology that spread; it was not a formally organized group. The movement promotes racial pride among Black people and celebrates African-American culture and art.

Civil Rights: "Civil rights" are the rights of people to be free from unfair or unequal treatment (discrimination) in many settings when that negative treatment is based on the person's race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, or other protected characteristics.

Civil Rights Act of 1964: A federal law that bans discrimination in many settings:

Civil Rights Movement: The term "Civil Rights Movement" pushes for equality for all.

Complainant: A term used to describe a person bringing a claim for a civil rights violation/discrimination. If the matter proceeds to a court of law, the complainant may be referred to as the plaintiff or the petitioner.

Criminal Civil Rights Violation: A criminal civil rights violation requires that the offender use force or the threat of force against the victim. An assault committed because of the victim's race or sexual orientation (i.e., a hate crime) is an example of a criminal civil rights violation.

Desegregation: The process of ending the practice of segregation. Segregation involves separating people or a group of people on the basis of race.

Diversity: Including a wide range of identities, backgrounds, and experiences within society or a group.

Discrimination: Unfair or unequal treatment of a person or group based on protected characteristics. Characteristics such as:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • National origin
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation

Federal and state laws ban discrimination against members of these protected groups in several settings, including:

  • Education
  • Employment
  • Government services
  • Housing
  • Lending
  • Public accommodations
  • Transportation
  • Voting

Domestic partnerships: Some state and local governments offer legal recognition of unmarried homosexual couples and heterosexual couples. Domestic partnerships offer the same benefits married people enjoy, including the right to share health insurance coverage and freedoms under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

EEOC: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is an agency of the federal government. The EEOC handles investigating and hearing claims of workplace discrimination or harassment. Usually, an alleged victim of workplace discrimination or harassment must file a claim with the EEOC before initiating a private lawsuit.

Equality: Equality is the principle that everyone deserves equal rights, opportunities, and treatment without discrimination.

Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA): The Equal Credit Opportunity Act guarantees all consumers an equal chance to get credit, regardless of sex, marital status, age, race, or other protected factors.

Equal Pay Act: Passed in 1963, the Equal Pay Act is a federal law requiring that employers pay all employees equally for equal work, regardless of whether the employees are male or female.

Equal Rights Amendment (ERA): The Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed equality to all persons, regardless of gender. After passing in Congress in 1972, the amendment needed more votes for state ratification. It has never become law.

Fair housing: Federal and state "fair housing" laws entitle home buyers, renters, and mortgage borrowers with protections against discrimination based on disability, gender, marital status, race, and sexual orientation (among other things).

FMLA: Short for the Family and Medical Leave Act applies to employers with more than 50 employees on their payroll. The FMLA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who choose to take time off of work to care for particular medical needs of their own or to care for their family members, including newborn and adopted children.

Gender identity: How a person feels internally about their gender. How they identify may not necessarily correspond with the sex assigned at birth.

Hate crimes: A hate crime is an act or threat of violence intended to injure and intimidate the victim(s) because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.

Hostile work environment: The basis for a sexual harassment claim is a "hostile work environment." This is where the presence of demeaning or sexual photographs, jokes, threats, or atmosphere is so pervasive it creates an intimidating and offensive work environment.

Human rights: Universal rights that all people are entitled to, encompassing political, civil, economic, social, and cultural aspects recognized by international law.

Indian Civil Rights Act: A law passed in 1968 that guaranteed civil rights for Native Americans.

Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA): IDEA is a federal law that guarantees the right to free and appropriate education to disabled students. IDEA requires an individualized education program (IEP) for each disabled child protected under the act.

LGBTQ+ rights: Advocacy for the equal treatment and protection of:

  • Lesbian
  • Gay
  • Bisexual
  • Transgender
  • Queer
  • Other non-heteronormative people

Political rights: The rights of people to take part in the political process. Such as running for office, voting, and engaging in other political activities.

Public accommodations: Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against certain protected groups in businesses and places that are considered "public accommodations." The definition of a "public accommodation" may vary depending upon the law at issue (i.e., federal or state) and the type of discrimination involved (i.e., race discrimination or disability discrimination). It may help to think of public accommodations as most (but not all) businesses or buildings that are open to (or offer services to) the general public.

Quid pro quo: A Latin phrase meaning "something for something." Quid pro quo is a type of sexual harassment in which the harasser asks for a sexual favor in return for providing an employment benefit. This can include a raise, continued employment, or other favorable treatment.

Respondent: The party against whom a legal complaint is filed or brought, often in discrimination cases.

Same-sex harassment: The type of sexual harassment that occurs when a man sexually harasses a man or a woman sexually harasses a woman.

Same-sex marriage: The right of two people of the same sex to legally marry and to enjoy the legal benefits conferred by marriage. Same-sex marriage has become a topical issue in the arena of civil rights.

Sexism: Sexism is discrimination, prejudice, or stereotyping based on an individual's sex or gender.

Sit-ins: A form of nonviolent protest. A group occupies a space to challenge injustices, such as segregation or discrimination in public areas.

Supreme Court: The highest court in a judicial system. This court is often responsible for making significant legal interpretations and decisions on civil rights and discrimination cases.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act: Short for Title VII to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It prohibits, among other things, discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, and sex.

Title IX: Short for Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in any education program or activity receiving federal financial aid.

Whistleblower: A "whistleblower" is an employee who reports a violation of the law by their employer. The violation may be against the reporting employee, as with sexual harassment claims. Or it could be a general violation, such as unlawful pollution practices against environmental law. The federal government and many states have laws protecting whistleblowers from retaliation.

White supremacy: This ideology promotes the belief in the superiority of white people over other racial and ethnic groups. These belief systems promote the idea that white people should dominate and control society, resources, and institutions while oppressing non-white people.

Talk to a Civil Rights Attorney

Navigating the complexities of civil rights and discrimination laws is quite an undertaking. There are many things to know about the laws available to protect you. If you suspect someone is violating your civil rights, talk to a civil rights attorney.

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