“Dignified Jobs at Decent Wages”: Reviving An Economic Equity Model of Employment Discrimination Law

Source: Rachel A. Spector, Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, Vol. 36 no. 1, 2015
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From the abstract:
The original goal of equal employment opportunity laws – most importantly Title VII – was to increase economic opportunity for racial minorities by dismantling discriminatory barriers to attaining “dignified jobs at decent wages.” Over time, however, Title VII and equivalent state laws have come to be viewed simply as a penalty for unfair treatment of individuals in the workplace, unconnected to advancing economic opportunity more broadly. Fifty years of national equal employment opportunity law has led to some workplace desegregation, as well as important gains for many women and people of color in accessing professional and executive positions. Yet it has not resulted in a broad expansion of economic opportunity for people of color. The gap in median income between white, black, and Latino households has held steady since 1964, and workers of color remain significantly overrepresented among the unemployed and those earning poverty-level wages.

Not surprisingly, workers of color – from fast food workers to domestic workers – are leading a growing resistance to the substandard working conditions of the low-wage economy. This article explores how employment discrimination law could once again become relevant to that struggle. It examines the history of equal employment opportunity advocacy from before the civil rights era through the early days of Title VII enforcement, and assesses how particular structural barriers facing today’s low-wage workers of color are both similar and distinct from barriers people faced fifty years ago. It also explores how advocates can go beyond the structure of Title VII litigation to embrace new legal mechanisms designed to promote economic opportunity for all, with a focus on opportunity for people of color. In doing so, the article seeks to revive an economic equity model of employment discrimination law, spur a richer conversation around racial discrimination and inequity in the low-wage economy, and plant the seeds for a broader understanding of equal opportunity in employment that encompasses the right to a decent livelihood.