Martin Luther King Jr. had a lofty, but much longed-for, dream. To paraphrase the good reverend, he hoped that character would someday matter more than skin color. That people of all races could come together in unity, rather than in discord.
Although the indelible images and unforgettable speeches of the American civil rights movement are typically associated with race, “civil rights” actually reach even further into society. According to Cornell University School of Law, “A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury.”
Protected civil rights in the U.S. include the right to vote, equality in public places, freedom from involuntary servitude, as well as freedom of press, assembly and speech. When a person's civil rights are hindered or denied because they belong to a specific class or group it is considered “discrimination.”
Measures have been taken to protect people from discrimination due to race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age and gender. But often, these safeguards are disrespected. And there are other areas of discrimination that are as yet not protected by law.
Here are six current examples of civil rights issues that are, unfortunately, alive and well:
LGBT Employment Discrimination
Background: The LGBT community experienced a major coup when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, but its equality struggle is hardly over. Although there are employment discrimination laws in place to protect general civil rights, LGBT people lack legislation specifically protecting them at a national level. In fact, gender identity and sexual orientation are still valid reasons to terminate an employee in 28 states.
Where Things Stand Now: The Equality Act (which addresses this issue) was introduced in July 2015 and has been endorsed by President Barack Obama. Despite the changing tide, experts believe it's unlikely that the legislation will pass before he leaves office.
Background: Slavery was abolished in the U.S in 1865, but that doesn't mean it disappeared completely. Human trafficking (defined as the illegal movement of people typically for forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation) is unfortunately alive and well. In North America alone, 1.5 million people are currently victims of human trafficking.
Where Things Stand Now: Many human trafficking victims (as well as a huge portion of undocumented immigrants) work in the restaurant industry or as domestics for far less than the current labor standard, often also in violation of overtime regulations. Sex trafficking is also out of control, with Atlanta's illegal industry alone bringing in $290 million a year. And often it's Americans exploiting other Americans, in addition to women from other countries.
Background: Although the majority of law enforcement officers strive to keep the peace, some highly publicized incidents and ongoing concerns from the black community have caused major debate about the use of excessive force. Cases including those involving the deaths of unarmed black men like Michael Brown Jr. and John Crawford III have put police culture and training under serious scrutiny.
Where Things Stand Now: In 2015, 987 people were killed by police, according to a Washington Post report. Nine percent of the shootings involved an unarmed person, mostly a black man. Unarmed black men were seven times as likely to die from police gunfire as unarmed white men. It is important to also note that nearly 80 percent of all those killed were armed with a gun or other weapon, and a quarter were mentally ill. To date, a solution to this complex issue has yet to be found, with plenty of controversy regarding how and when deadly force is justified. Indictments of police tripled in 2015 compared to previous years. Numerous protests (and the Black Lives Matter movement) have occurred in response to the issue.
Disability Discrimination in the Workplace
Background: A couple decades have gone by since the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, which protects people with mental or physical impairment. Functionally, workplaces have improved thanks to additions like wheelchair ramps, automatic doors and parking spaces for the handicapped.
Where Things Stand Now: Disabled people are still employed at a drastically lower rate than their able-bodied counterparts. One study showed 79 percent of disabled people were unemployed, with 73 percent of the opinion that their disability was the cause. The ADA Amendments Act was passed in 2008 to expand the range of disabilities covered under the ADA and to provide more guidance for employers and employees.
Background: In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act) was passed. It allows for pregnancy-related sick leave, guaranteed pregnancy disability leave and for pregnant women to be treated in the same manner that a company would treat any other temporarily disabled employee. The act also says an employer can't refuse to hire a woman who is pregnant as long as she can perform the job.
Where Things Stand Now: Pregnancy discrimination cases are on the uptick. In fact, 2013 alone saw more than 5,000 complaints issued to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, compared with 3,900 in 1997. Corporate giant UPS is currently embroiled in a major court case because the company allegedly forced an employee into unpaid leave without medical insurance when she requested transfer to a position that didn't require heavy lifting.
Background: Do you see weight as a civil rights issue? Consider this: A 2008 study published in the International Journal of Obesity revealed that obese workers are likely to earn $100,000 less than thinner co-workers over a 40-year career. Another study found weight and height discrimination rates are about the same as racial discrimination rates. And overweight people can be fired because of their size even if their job performance is good.
Where Things Stand Now: Just one state (Michigan) and six cities currently have laws against weight discrimination. The health care industry has begun to employ weight bias training in medical school and as ongoing education. However, since many people seeking their degrees have long-formed opinions, it is an ongoing, difficult process. Businesses are also educating employees on identifying their personal biases.