Alex R. Maryland

Striving for an Equal Rights Amendment

Recent developments in discrimination and nativism challenge some of the constitutional standards of our republic. In searching for a remedy, we must consider a revised equal rights amendment

Dear Future President,

Throughout history, Americans have always accepted diversity as a tenet of our society; unfortunately, we have also accepted discrimination against various minority groups--from blacks to Jews to women and more--at the very same time. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty clearly expresses the former sentiment, telling the rest of the world on behalf of America to “ ‘Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe...’ ” (Lazarus). The iconic statue reflects our historical willingness to accept immigrants as our own, regardless of their background. However, today Americans are witnessing a resurgence of nativisim, with some calling for measures to “build a wall” along the Mexican-American border, along with ceasing all Muslim immigration to our country. In theory, we accept racial equality, yet some oppose efforts to reform police departments that engage in blatant racial profiling and warrantless searches in violation of the 4th Amendment. I emphasize “in theory,” because the crucial idea of equality under the law regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. is reflected in our Constitution, but we rarely follow through with it consistently. This is partly because this idea has never been explicitly formulated in the document, only existing through the somewhat nebulous legal language of the 14th and 15th Amendment. So, future president, I propose a simple solution to this confusing dilemma: an equal rights amendment. The passage of an equal rights amendment that explicitly guarantees equal treatment under the law without regard for race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion would translate into stronger means to dismantle discriminatory institutions, laws or practices. As a result, we would effectively establish acceptance of diversity as a tenet of American democracy and complete the work of former civil rights movements.

Discrimination in American society has persisted in spite of countermeasures like the 14th Amendment because these Constitutional protections are weak and vulnerable to interpretation; an equal rights amendment would provide the clarity to strengthen them. Antidiscrimination laws and measures like the 14th can be construed by the courts in many different ways, to the extent that they can even counteract efforts to fight discrimination. The most famous example of this is seen in Plessy v. Ferguson, where the Supreme Court argued on the basis of the 14th Amendment to put forth the “separate but equal” doctrine, one that was clearly designed to restrict blacks from quality educational institutions by granting them a separate and inferior alternatives. In the same century, Brown v. Board of Education overturned this doctrine using the very same amendment, arguing that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (347 U.S. 483). The discomforting amount of room for interpretation is concerning; equity under the law should not be able to lead to such drastically different implementations. With an equal rights amendment that explicitly sets forth equity among all citizens and has a clear meaning that cannot be twisted to certain agendas, there would be no legal basis for anyone to purposefully justify discrimination in the guise of the Constitution. In 2013, Floyd v. City of New York established that stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional because the racial profiling behind it was clearly discriminatory and yielded little in the way of subverting illegal activity, with the court noting that the practice “must be reformed to comply with constitutional limits where “stops be conducted in a racially neutral manner” [08 Civ. 1034 (SAS)]. But while the federal judge for this case offered her own interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that allowed her to apply equal protection under the law to the context of stop-and-frisk, there is no guarantee that a different court with its own interpretation of the Constitution might not decide to dismantle this protection. Future President, an equal rights amendment may not fully resolve institutional discrimination, but providing stronger legal tools to combat it is certainly advantageous in any regard.

Strengthening the place of antidiscrimination law in the Constitution would only reaffirm our combined fundamental values of diversity and cultural homogeneity. Many commentators in US history have referred to the nation either as a “melting pot” or as a “salad bowl”; some disagree over the best metaphor to use. President Jimmy Carter, for example, argued that “We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams” (Carter), arguing that the cultural differences between groups of people should be recognized and celebrated, not blended together as one. Regardless, our nation is composed of a selection of different backgrounds, cultures, and tastes that form one unique and diverse whole. It reflects how the American population is largely composed of immigrants who arrived in this country at one time or another out of distress or in search of opportunity. In the 1850s, Irish families fled to the US to escape the potato famine; today, Syrian refugees similarly flee here to escape civil war. While the premise is that we can all receive equal treatment under the law without discrimination on the basis of our backgrounds, at every turn a class of people (and not necessarily recent immigrants) have faced pushback against their presence. In the 19th century, it was Irish Catholic immigrants that the Know Nothing Party feared would take American jobs and destroy American culture. Today, it is Syrian and other Muslim refugees that xenophobes citing fear of terrorism wish to restrict from immigrating into America, with candidates like Donald Trump calling for “a [temporary] total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” (Trump). After the Civil War, the KKK sought to oppress, murder, and silence Southern blacks into submission in fear of their success. Patriarchal democracy restricted women from the ballot well into the 20th century, in fear of their exerting independence. Extreme and absolutist reactions to minority groups is a universal theme in American history, from past to present. The identity of the discriminated against and the discriminators would not matter in the context of an equal rights amendment. With such an amendment, we would end the cycle of discrimination by understanding that diversity has been a central component of the American democracy and economy since the nation’s beginning. While rejection of others has been a recurring theme in our history, an equal rights amendment would reaffirm that this is certainly not the American way.

Building on the theme of reaffirming our values, an equal rights amendment would serve as a long-overdue capstone to the civil rights movements from the past. By broadly guaranteeing equal protection under the law, the amendment would commemorate the various fights for equality for particular groups of people in American history. From the fight for voting rights and housing equality by the Civil Rights Movement led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s to the efforts of 20th century feminists fighting for the right to vote and equity in academic and career opportunities (e.g. Title XI’s requirements to create extracurricular accommodations for both genders), an equal rights amendment would symbolize progress in solidifying equality of civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. had “a dream that ... little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” (King). With an equal rights amendment, we would effectively extend this dream to gender, religion, origin, sexual orientation, and possibly other categorizations. This aforementioned extension is already beginning in the case of sexual orientation. The Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (576 U.S. ___) barred states from denying same-sex couples the ability to marry each other with the same benefits as heterosexuals, a movement that commemorated the efforts of LGBT rights groups in achieving this protection from discrimination. Indeed, Future President, an amendment promoting this would allow us to strive for a post-discrimination society where civil rights violations are relegated to the pages of history books.

Realistically, an equal rights amendment should not? be controversial, considering that it only builds upon our previous efforts to combat discrimination. Strengthening anti-discrimination protections in the Constitution and reaffirming our belief that equality accompanies diversity in our democracy are justified given the increasing progressive direction of our society. Even if the idea of an equal rights amendment might be hard to swallow considering the general difficulty of passing any amendment, its ideal is something worth striving forth. In this sense, Future President, we should actively pursue the broad guarantee of equality under the law, even if it is not through a constitutional amendment. We should also be mindful of how new categories of discrimination must be recognized, such as in the case of sexual orientation today, and extended the same protections against discrimination guaranteed to all others. Remember, Future President, the pursuit of equality is always active and always trumps fear. Leaders who champion it, like President Lincoln, are bound to be remembered fondly by posterity. Those who impede this pursuit, like President Jackson, are bound to be scorned. The future will inevitably see the triumph of diversity, as history has always proven, and for any incoming president, the better deal is obvious.

Works Cited