Why Is Title VII in Retreat? A Socioeconomic Analysis of the Retrenchment of Contemporary Civil Rights Law

Jacob Chabot - Yale Law School
Vol. 57
April 2024
Page 2299

This Article uses Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the Title regulating employment discrimination — as a springboard for analysis in determining why civil rights law has seen a falling off. The conclusion is that although political reasons did play a large role in the retrenchment of civil rights law as it was conceived during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, they did not play the only role. 

Five socioeconomic reasons have contributed heavily to the diminishing fervor of civil rights laws like Title VII. For example, Title VII precedent used to be much more favorable to employees suing their employer for wrongful discrimination. It has since become more favorable to the employer defending against a Title VII lawsuit. Shifting political winds likely had something to do with this, but so too did the shifting of cases likely to settle relative to those likely to go to litigation. 

Judges in the 50s and the 60s were more likely to broadly interpret the principles undergirding Title VII. As time passed, the Title VII cases they decided were read narrowly, thus narrowing the understanding of who could recover under Title VII. Again, politics likely had something to do with this. But so too did the increasing abundance of existing Title VII cases, which overproceduralized Title VII precedent and grew a judiciary more reluctant to interpret cases broadly against an increasingly complicated procedural tapestry. 

Finally, the groups advocating in favor of Title VII have grown less cohesive since its inception. And some groups that were once in favor of Title VII now celebrate its retrenchment. Southern business owners, for example, were surprisingly pro-Title VII. They stood to profit from the enlarged customer base it would allow them to serve. Their support is no longer as fervent since their customer base will likely not shrink regardless of the degree to which Title VII is hobbled. 

These socioeconomic reasons, in addition to political ones, account for a significant portion of the retrenchment of Title VII and subsequently of civil rights laws.

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