Civil Rights Glossary

Civil Rights Glossary

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Accent Discrimination
Unjustified discrimination against workers who speak English with an accent.

Affirmative Action
The general designation for a wide range of programs designed to overcome the effects of past discrimination and to provide equal opportunity for historically subjugated groups, especially African Americans and women. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights defined affirmative action in 1977 as "...any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future."

Asian American
Americans of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Asian Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Bangladeshi, Burmese, Indonesian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Amerasian, or Eurasian descent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


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A count of all citizens, non-citizen legal residents, non-citizen long-term visitors, and illegal immigrants in the United States. The United States Constitution mandates that the census be taken at least once every 10 years, and that the number of members of the United States House of Representatives from each state be determined accordingly. In addition, census statistics are used for apportioning federal funding for many social and economic programs. Decennial U.S. Census figures are based on actual counts of persons dwelling in U.S. residential structures. In recent censuses, estimates of uncounted housed, homeless, and migratory persons have been added to the directly reported figures.

Charitable Choice
Refers to legislative and other proposals that would allow or expand federal funding of social services and other programs run by religious organizations. Such proposals have been criticized for their potential undermine the separation of church and state, by permitting religious groups to receive federal money to run programs that permit proselytizing and religious discrimination.

Consent Decree
An agreement entered into by the mutual accord of both parties in a lawsuit. In civil rights law, consent decrees often involve an agreement by a jurisdiction or company which agrees to end discriminatory practices and to implement affirmative action programs.

Culture of Poverty
A thesis made prominent in the civil rights debate by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965 that contends poor African Americans perpetuate a culture that is pathological and that the negative social behaviors are passed on from generation to generation.


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The breaking down of imposed racial separation. Desegregation has always been a fundamental aim of the civil rights movement in this country and was given special impetus by the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled segregated schools unconstitutional.

Digital Divide
Refers to less affluent, often minority Americans' disproportionately limited access to the Internet and other information technology.

An individual is considered to have a "disability" triggering the ADA's protections if he or she has 1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his or her major life activities (such as walking, hearing, working); 2) a record of having such an impairment; or 3) is regarded as having such an impairment.

Disparate Impact
Refers to employment or other practices that have an adverse impact on minorities, women, or other protected groups, regardless of whether such practices were motivated by discriminatory intent. Such practices might include tests that do not measure the applicant's ability successfully to perform the job or height-and-weight requirements that unfairly exclude women or people of color from certain job opportunities.


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Employment Non-Discrimination Act ("ENDA"); legislation that would provide a federal remedy for discrimination against lesbians and gay men in most workplaces employing 15 or more employees. It would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, compensation, and most terms and conditions of employment.

Unjustified workplace policies that require workers to communicate only in English even in situations where workers are communicating only among themselves on breaks, or in jobs that do not require contact with English-speaking customers or colleagues.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
Created by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC is the federal agency with the responsibility for enforcing the anti-bias employment provisions of the 1964 act but also the Equal Pay Act, the Age Discrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC has been the object of a policy dispute over whether it should concentrate on individual cases of specific discrimination or pursue more widespread instances of "patterns and practices" of discrimination in an industry or large company.

Equal Rights Amendment
Although this amendment would have written a ban on sexual bias, equal pay for equal work, and a guarantee of equal opportunity into the Constitution, it fell three states short of ratification in 1982.

Essential Job Functions
The ADA prohibits job discrimination against individuals with disabilities who, with or without a reasonable accommodation, can perform a job's "essential functions." "Essential job functions" are the primary job duties that are fundamental to the position.


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Food Stamps
A supplemental program providing the poor with vouchers for the purchase of food.

Felony Disenfranchisement
The practice of some states to disenfranchise - sometimes permanently - any citizen with a record of a felony conviction, namely voting privileges.

Fifteenth Amendment
Ratified in the wake of the Civil War, this amendment guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race or color.

Fourteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1868, this amendment made all people born in the United States citizens of both the nation and the state in which they reside, reversing Dred Scott v. Sandford.  It also prohibited states from denying any citizen due process or equal protection of the laws. 


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Gender Identity
The gender with which a person identifies; whether one perceives oneself to be a man, a woman, or describes oneself in some less conventional way. The term can also be used to refer to the gender that other people attribute to the individual on the basis of what they know from gender role indications, like social behavior or clothing. Gender identity may be affected by a variety of social structures, including the person's ethnic group, employment status, religion or irreligion, and family.

The distorted drawing of electoral lines to give an unfair advantage to one group. The word comes from a combination of salamander and Elbridge Gerry (I 744-1814), a Revolutionary era governor of Massachusetts and signer of the Declaration of Independence. According to one story, the word has its roots in an electoral district drawn by Gerry's party for the 1812 election that looked like a salamander.

Within the context of affirmative action, an ideal to reach for as one measure of nondiscrimination and of the effectiveness of efforts.


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Hate Crime
A crime committed because of the victim's membership in a protected class, such as race, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or sexual orientation.

Head Start
A pre-school program designed to give poor children early educational opportunities, and, by all accounts, one of the most successful of the Great Society's anti-poverty efforts.


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The movement of people from one nation-state to another.


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Jim Crow
The name that was given to the de jure, or legal segregation of blacks from whites before the civil rights movement. The name itself comes from a black minstrel caricature popularized in song during the 1830s. Thus, laws restricting African Americans to the back of a bus or creating separate restrooms, drinking fountains or eating facilities were known as "Jim Crow" laws.

Job Corps
A vocational training program aimed at providing job training for the poor.


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Kerner Commission
After the various uprisings in 1967, President Johnson set up this committee to study the race problems in America. They came to the conclusion that America was moving toward becoming two nations, black and white. Although the official title was the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the popular name came from the chairman, Otto Kerner.


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The Census defines a Latino or Hispanic person as one of Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban origin regardless of race.

Limited English Proficient (LEP)
Refers to students who are not fluent in English. As the Supreme Court and Congress have made clear, federal antidiscrimination law requires that schools must provide LEP students with the skills necessary to compete academically with their peers who are fluent in English.

Literacy Test
One of the obstacles used to prevent minorities and other disenfranchised groups from voting before enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If a potential voter was unable to read material identified under these tests, he or she would be barred from voting.

The term is derived from the "vigilante justice" practiced by Captain William Lynch and his neighbors in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, in the late 18th century. In the 19th century, lynching - usually associated with hanging but also including tar and feathering, burning and other methods of killing - became increasingly directed against African Americans. In the last 16 years of the 19th century, there were some 2,500 reported lynchings. The quest for federal laws against lynching was among the first crusades of the NAACP in the early decades of the 20th century.


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Mandatory Arbitration
An employment practice whereby an employer requires, as a condition of employment, that a worker waive his or her rights to file any future discrimination claim in court. Instead, the worker must submit to binding arbitration, which may impose steep costs and limit procedural protections and remedies that would be available in court.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
In 1986, Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which force judges to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of a crime, regardless of culpability or other mitigating factors. Federal mandatory drug sentences are determined based on three factors: the type of drug, weight of the drug mixture, and the number of prior convictions. Mandatory sentencing is highly controversial because it has contributed to prison overcrowding and has resulted in racial disparities in convictions. This disparity is due to the mandatory sentencing for a small amount of crack cocaine, which is a drug used most commonly by African Americans.

Means Test
In anti-poverty programs, a method for determining eligibility in which benefits are granted if a participant's income falls below a certain threshold.

Government subsidized health care program for the poor, roughly comparable to Medicare.

Refers to the National Voter Registration Act, which is designed to expand voter registration by, among other things, requiring states to make voter registration materials available at driver-licensing and motor vehicles offices.


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Nineteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1920, this amendment gave women the right to vote.


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Pay Equity
A remedy for addressing pay discrimination that depresses wages paid to jobs traditionally held by women and/or people of color. Pay equity requires employers to provide equal pay for work of equal value, as measured by the skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions needed to perform the jobs.

Philadelphia Plan
Implemented under President Richard Nixon, this plan required contractors doing business with the federal government to commit themselves to self-determined goals of minority employment within a range of acceptable standards set by the government.

Poll Tax
A fee imposed by a state or local government as a condition of voting, historically used as a way to prevent African Americans from voting.

A way of describing requirements in the Voting Rights Act under which some jurisdictions must receive advance approval from the Department of Justice for changes they want to make in adjusting voting districts or procedures.

Voting Rights Act provisions that require certain jurisdictions (with a history of discriminating against minority voters) to receive advance federal approval for any changes in voting practices or procedures.

Predatory Lending
Lending practices that exploit vulnerable borrowers, such as minorities, women, and the elderly. Such practices may include persuading borrowers that debt consolidation or mortgage refinancing is advantageous when it actually means lengthening the mortgage's term and diminishing the amount of the borrower's equity. They may also include charging exorbitant interest rates and fees, or making loans to borrowers that are almost inevitably headed for foreclosure.

Pricing Discrimination
Practice of charging minorities and other protected groups more for credit than other similarly situated borrowers.


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For affirmative action purposes, an absolute requirement that an employer hire a certain number of or percentage of employees from a specified group, without regard to the availability of qualified candidates or the presence of more qualified members of other groups.


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Racial Profiling
Refers to law enforcement strategies and practices that single out minorities as objects of suspicion solely on the basis of the color of their skin or accent.

In the context of affirmative action, a numerically expressed estimate or percentage of new employees, i.e. one qualified African American hired every time a new white person is hired.

The redrawing of legislative district lines following a census. The Constitution requires federal House of Representative districts to be redrawn following each decennial census with the aim of ensuring equitable representation based on shifts of population.

Reasonable Accommodation
An employer's failure to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee's disability is a violation of the ADA unless the employer shows that providing the accommodation would create an undue hardship (i.e., an action imposing significant difficulty or expense upon the employer). Reasonable accommodations may include modifications or adjustments such as making existing facilities accessible to employees with disabilities, acquiring or modifying equipment, modifying work schedules, or supplying readers or interpreters.

The period following the end of the Civil War until the 1870s, during which the former Confederate states were controlled by the federal government, often with a military presence. During this time, policies implemented in the Southern states expanded opportunities for African Americans, only to be abandoned following Reconstruction and replaced by Jim Crow laws imposing racial segregation.

Marketing practices whereby certain lenders refuse to make loans in certain neighborhoods based on their racial and/or ethnic make-up.

Religious Accommodation
An employer's duty, under Title VII, to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious observance or practice if the employer can do so "without undue hardship" to its business. Such reasonable accommodations may include scheduling an employee's shift to allow him or her to observe the Sabbath or other religious holidays or adjusting workplace policies to accommodate an employee's religious clothing and/or grooming requirements.

Reverse Discrimination
A charge made by critics of affirmative action to argue such programs discriminate against white males by favoring less qualified women or minorities.


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Separation or isolation of a race or class from the rest of the population. In the United States, segregation has taken two forms: de jure and de facto. De jure segregation is where a set of laws mandates separation, like those that prevailed in the South from the end of Reconstruction. De facto segregation prevailed in the North after Reconstruction and is enforced by cultural and economic patterns rather than by law, especially in housing.

Sexual Harassment
In the workplace, sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual or sex-based conduct - such as unwanted touching, pressure for dates, or offensive remarks - that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment and interfere with the victim's ability to perform her job. Similarly, sexual harassment in the schools includes unwelcome sexual or sex-based conduct that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent to limit the victim's ability to benefit from an educational opportunity. Sexual harassment can also include conditioning an employment or educational opportunity on the victim's submission to requests for sexual favors.

Sexual Orientation
Generally defined to mean heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality.

Strict Scrutiny
The highest standard of review by the courts, requiring that the program in question be narrowly tailored to accomplish a compelling government interest in order to pass constitutional muster.

Subprime Market
The portion of the loan market consisting of borrowers who do not qualify for loans from mainstream lenders due to income or a low credit rating.


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"Fair housing testing" refers to the use of individuals who pose as prospective buyers or renters of real estate for the purpose of gathering information that may indicate whether a housing provider is complying with fair housing laws. For example, a white and a black tester matched with similar employment and income histories may separately approach a housing provider to inquire about the same housing opportunity, to identify any differences in treatment.

Thirteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1865, this amendment abolished slavery.

Tribal Sovereignty
refers to tribes' right to govern themselves, define their own membership, manage tribal property, and regulate tribal business and domestic relations; it further recognizes the existence of a government-to-government relationship between such tribes and the federal government

Twenty-Fourth Amendment
Ratified in 1964, this amendment ended the practice of poll taxes.


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Under Class
A controversial concept, somewhat synonymous with what used to be called the "lower classes," and now often used to describe the poorest of the poor urban Americans. It is used to refer to that group of people with high levels of joblessness, illiteracy, illegitimacy, violence, and isolation from mainstream society.

To record fewer than the actual number of people in the U.S. in a census. Despite a massive effort, the Census Bureau has never been able to count every individual. The Supreme Court has ruled that only an actual head count can be used to apportion Congressional seats; however, cities and minority representatives have expressed the concern that that urban residents and minorities are undercounted. The Census Bureau will recount an area with disputed figures, provided the local government pays for the time and effort, but many local governments are unwilling to do so. This leads to under-representation of minorities and urban residents when apportioning Congressional seats.

Underwriting Discrimination
Lending practices that apply different standards for assessing creditworthiness on the basis of applicants' race, national origin, etc.

Undocumented Immigrant
A person who is residing in the U.S. without the permission of the U.S. government. Undocumented immigrants enter the U.S. either illegally, without being inspected by an immigration officer or by using false documents, or legally, with a temporary visa and then remain in the U.S. after the visa has expired