Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
Racial discrimination occurs when an individual is subjected to unequal treatment because of their actual or perceived race. The U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 work in concert to ensure that each resident’s rights and standing under the law are not damaged by their race. However, it's important to remember that slavery was a major driver of the U.S. economy when the Constitution was first ratified, so racism has long played a major (if dubious) role in American culture. This section offers in-depth information on unlawful racial discrimination in a number of settings, including employment, housing, education, and other public resources. It also provides links to key federal laws and U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to racial discrimination.
Racial Discrimination and the U.S. Supreme Court
Many of today's racial anti-discrimination laws are based on decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, each case telling the story of the struggle for racial equality in the United States. The Court denied U.S. citizenship to all blacks, whether free or slave, in its pre-Civil War Dred Scott (1857) ruling; which would eventually be overturned by passage of the 14th Amendment. Laws are always being altered and replaced, as the Court's history of racial discrimination rulings shows:
- Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) - The Court decided 7-1 that racial segregation of public facilities was constitutional under the doctrine of "separate but equal," a holding that was followed until 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education).
- Korematsu v. U.S. (1944) - The conviction of a Japanese-American citizen who refused to leave California during the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, was upheld.
- Brown v. Board of Education (1954) - This case reversed the Plessy decision, prohibiting racial segregation of public schools, and laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- Loving v. Virginia (1967) - The Court ruled that state laws banning interracial marriage are unconstitutional.
- Lau v. Nichols (1973) - A school system's failure to provide English language instruction to students of Chinese ancestry was ruled to be discriminatory.
Employment and Racial Discrimination
Federal and state employment laws prohibit the use of one's racial identity as a basis for hiring, firing, and related employment decisions. Some cases may involve overt racism, but it tends to be much more nuanced and thus difficult to remedy in some cases. For instance, it is illegal to not hire somebody solely based on race. But even so, the rejected job candidate typically has no clue why they didn't get the job; and even when there is suspicion, individuals looking for work are less likely to file lawsuits.
There also may be instances where an employer is acting in a discriminatory manner but isn't even aware. For instance, there may be certain recruitment practices, written tests, or certain policies at work that have a disproportionately adverse effect on racial minorities. But if there isn't a legitimate business reason, the employer may be on the hook for a discrimination claim.
Filing a Racial Discrimination Claim with the EEOC
If you have reason to believe that your employer has discriminated against you on the basis of your race, you may file a "charge" (a formal complaint, but not a civil claim) with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You must file this charge with the EEOC within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act, after which the EEOC will send notice to your employer. The agency then investigates the charge to determine its merit and finally makes a finding of cause (or "no cause").
If the EEOC finds cause that your employer may have discriminated, then you and your employer will work toward a settlement as a result of conciliation. But if conciliation fails, you may sue your employer after the agency issues a "right to sue" letter.
Learn more about racial discrimination laws by clicking one of the following links.
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