In the last couple of years our country has elected our first black president, and witnessed the appointments of our first Latina Supreme court justice and our first openly gay White House Social Secretary. After centuries marked by slavery, segregation and other forms of legalized inequality it seemed as though our country was finally headed in a direction in which fewer groups would feel the need to request federal civil rights protection simply to survive. But recently progress was tapped on the shoulder by our friend, cold, hard reality and told, "Not so fast." Last week Representative Hank Johnson introduced legislation that would add another group to those already protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act: the unemployed. The Fair Employment Act of 2011 would make discrimination against the unemployed a civil rights violation, on par with discrimination on the basis of race or gender.
The reason? Because just as some signs outside of restaurants, stores and job postings used to declare "No Coloreds Allowed," some employers are now declaring, "No Unemployed Allowed." (Click here to see a list of current U.S. Senators with the worst voting records on Civil Rights.)
According to a recent report on this very site, a number of companies have begun advertising job openings that specify that currently unemployed people will not be considered for the position. Though it sounds counterintuitive to most of us to exclude those who need jobs and want them from the opportunity to even compete for one (particularly as our country still struggles to recover from one of the worst economic downturns in recent memory which has rendered countless Americans newly unemployed), there are plenty of defenders of the practice.
One recruiter was quoted on NPR as saying:
If you think about the talent in that unemployed market, you would realize that companies rarely lay off their best skilled workers... it's people that aren't top performers. So if you're ABC Corporation and you're trying to hire the best salesperson out there, and you're looking at unemployed people, it might not be the group of people with the best skills.
Well perhaps in an ideal world, but in an ideal world there wouldn't be layoffs and economic downturns to begin with. In the real world people lose jobs for all kinds of reasons. Just ask the town of Gerlach, Nevada which may soon close its school and disappear altogether. The reason? Because the Gypsum plant which has employed the majority of the town's residents since 1923 will soon close.
The irony is that the way the current civil rights law is written and interpreted by courts, the practice of refusing to hire someone based on current employment status would only be illegal if it were deemed to have a disproportionate impact on a specific protected group like, for instance, black men.
We all know that black men have a disproportionately tougher time in the job market. A 2005 study by two Princeton professors found that white men with criminal records were still more likely to receive job offers than black men without records. But it's worth noting that at least potential employers are not allowed to say "BLACK MEN WILL NOT BE CONSIDERED AT ALL." Yet the phone manufacturer Sony Ericsson recently posted an ad that specified: "NO UNEMPLOYED CANDIDATES WILL BE CONSIDERED AT ALL." A company spokeswoman later apologized, but the practice continues at other companies.
So despite the hopes of some it looks like the civil rights movement has not become a relic of the past after all. It's just taking a different shape. Instead of primarily helping people of color, it must now help those of all colors who need their rights protected by the government.
Including the unemployed.
This piece originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a Contributing Editor.