The Legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964


Fifty Years Later: The Legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Article first published online: February 9, 2015

Joni Hersch, Professor of Law and Economics, Co-Director, Ph.D. Program in Law and Economics, Vanderbilt Law School & Jennifer Shinall, Ph.D., J.D., Assistant Professor of Law, Vanderbilt Law School

What was the genesis of the idea for your research/paper?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a revolutionary law that sought to eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex throughout all facets of American life. The Act’s sweeping protections extended from public accommodations to employment, education, and voting. Clearly the Act was highly successful on many dimensions, especially with regard to ending segregation in public accommodations and changing societal norms with respect to discriminatory treatment. But racial minorities and women, as well as other disadvantaged groups, continue to be disadvantaged in employment and pay, and employment discrimination claims and litigation have not abated over time.

Economists, lawyers, and scholars from many disciplines have engaged in the debate over the legacy of the 1964 Act and whether racial discrimination remains an important feature of the US; in fact, the debate extends all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, as most plainly seen in its divided affirmative action decisions. The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act seemed an opportune time to assess the legacy of the Act, drawing on my research in employment discrimination and Jennifer’s knowledge of employment law and legal history.

What is the main conclusion that becomes evident from your research? (Or, what is your main takeaway?)

The 1964 Civil Rights Act eliminated segregation in public accommodations; this dramatic shift in everyday living conditions, particularly for racial minorities in the American South, is arguably the Act’s greatest legacy. Furthermore, although discriminatory gaps in employment and pay have not been eliminated, the Civil Rights Act was successful in improving labor market outcomes for disadvantaged groups covered by the Act. Finally, the Act paved the way for later employment protections on the basis of age and disability status.

What are some of the more interesting or surprising findings/conclusions did you find in the process of bringing this together?

Even though the 1964 Act has fallen short of some of its initial goals, the employment protections under Title VII of the Act remain widely used by racial minorities and women as well as by other disadvantaged groups, including members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community, who advocate for extending the Act’s protections to their cause. In addition to serving as a potential source of workplace rights for LGBT individuals, the Act may also provide a legal foundation for the Ban-the-Box movement, which seeks to prohibit employers from asking applicants about their criminal records.

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Authors' Bios

Joni Hersch is Professor of Law and Economics at Vanderbilt University Law School, with secondary appointments in the Department of Economics and the Owen Graduate School of Management. Over the course of her career, she has published numerous articles on sex, race, color, and national origin disparities in labor market outcomes, economic and social inequality, economics of home production, law and economics, job risks, and product safety regulation. She is co-founder and co-director of the Ph.D. Program in Law and Economics at Vanderbilt University. Hersch received her Ph.D. in Economics from Northwestern University.

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Jennifer Shinall, Ph.D., J.D. is Assistant Professor of Law at Vanderbilt Law School and an affiliated faculty member with the Vanderbilt Law and Economics Program. Shinall’s research focuses on the negative effects of obesity on labor market outcomes and, in particular, how employer policies and the legal system can remedy these negative effects.

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