Civil Rights

Want to Advance Civil Rights? Focus Less on Individual Grievances, Law Prof Argues


Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford says more civil rights laws and more lawsuits are not the best way to advance the cause.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Ford argues that a better way to move forward on civil rights is to focus less on individual grievances and more on collective solutions.

Lawsuits by individuals, he argues, only deal with a piece of the problem and can produce “perverse effects.” He offers this example: Laws that prohibit age discrimination bar companies from forcing employees to retire. As a result, older executives who suffer little discrimination get lucrative retirement incentives. But the same laws fail to remedy a bigger problem—age discrimination in hiring—because “job seekers rarely sue over the job that got away.”

Ford says developments in international human rights law are an example of a better approach. Some advocates are focusing less on individual grievances and more on improving and monitoring the standard practices of governments.

In the context a discrimination suit, such an approach would allow a business to offer as a defense that it used best employment practices. In the criminal justice context, a police department that monitors for racial imbalances in stop-and-frisk statistics could get immunity from some kinds of civil liability.

“Moving from lawsuits to comprehensive solutions would mean compromising the ideal that every victim of discrimination was entitled to redress,” Ford writes. “That may seem like a betrayal of the civil rights legacy, but the real betrayal would be to fail to keep pace with the very social changes civil rights helped to bring about.”

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