Do we need civil rights for the poor?

By Elizabeth Lefebvre| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Politics Social Justice

It’s been a big and busy week for the Supreme Court, which handed out decisions on the Voting Rights Act and the Defense of Marriage Act. In light of these important rulings, the New York Times’ opinion “Room for Debate” section posed the following question: Is the Civil Rights Era Over? “With rulings on affirmative action, voting rights and same-sex marriage, are we seeing the end of the civil rights movement? Did it win?” the Times asks. A panel of debaters offered their takes.

One brief opinion from Richard D. Kahlenberg caught my attention, who declared that we need civil rights for the poor. “It is time to begin employing critical civil rights tools on behalf of economically disadvantaged people of all races,” he wrote. “That means class-based affirmative action programs, to give a leg up in college admissions to low-income students of all races. It means socioeconomic integration of public schools to allow disadvantaged students (many of them students of color), to attend middle-class schools. And it means expanding the anti-discrimination protections of the Civil Rights Act to include people of all races who are trying to join a union and become members of the middle-class but are frequently fired by anti-union employers for doing so.” Economic inequality should be considered a barrier to success the same as discrimination based on race, sex, nation, or sexual orientation, he argued. “It is time to expand our thinking on civil rights to include low-income and working class people of all races.”

As Catholic economist Charles Clark told us in an interview, what drives inequality is public policy. Will we see new civil rights laws and programs aimed at alleviating economic inequality? Public outcry was critical in establishing the civil rights movement and in advocating for equal marriage rights under federal law. Perhaps it's time for us to have more public outrcry for the poor.