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March 15, 2014

50 years after Civil Rights Act, work still to be done

TERRE HAUTE — This July will mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The priorities of civil rights activism today may have changed since that time five decades ago, but challenges to civil rights still exist in American society.

Speakers at the 13th annual Terre Haute Human Rights Day on Tuesday will examine issues affecting life in the Wabash Valley and the world at large during the all-day event at Indiana State University.

Recently in Indianapolis, Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general, talked to Hoosier advocates and government employees about current trends and “hot button” issues during a civil rights symposium presented by the office of U.S. Attorney Joseph Hogsett.

“Much remains to be done,” Samuels said of enforcing anti-discrimination laws.

Some concerns still exist in the areas of voter registration, especially as Voter ID laws are instituted around the country. Making accommodations for language minorities is an ongoing issue, as are housing and lending protections, and discrimination against people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

“The unfinished struggle for equal opportunity and justice is something which everyone can appreciate,” Samuels said.

Discrimination in the Valley

In Terre Haute, the Human Relations Commission regularly hears from citizens who feel they have been the subject of discriminatory practices.

Executive Director Jeff Lorick said the concerns he hears run the gamut from employment to housing to disabilities to LGBT issues.

Discovering and proving financial discrimination is difficult, he said, because it is not always clear to the borrower how their credit rating is assessed by the lender.

“A large segment of the minority community got caught up in the housing crisis,” Lorick told the Tribune-Star during a recent interview. “A lot of people in the minority community lost their homes in all of that.”

The predatory lending practices that occurred were often not evident until after a family had lost a home, he said.

Employment discrimination still occurs, he said, but people often will not raise a complaint for fear of losing their job, even though a complainant is supposed to be protected by the law.

Lorick said he spoke to one man who felt he had a complaint about his treatment on the job, but the man’s wife encouraged him to “let it go” because the family needed the income and feared reprisals if a complaint were filed.

As for discrimination against people with disabilities, Lorick said more protections are being built into the Americans with Disabilities Act to expand it. But people have to know their rights when it comes to receiving accommodations for their situations.

Lorick said he talked to one person who is wheelchair-bound and was thrilled to be hired to a new job. When the person arrived on the job, she found that her employer had tried to improve her workspace by raising the level of her desk and adding an adaptive device to her phone. However, those changes were not needed, he said, so the employee thanked her new boss, but asked for the changes to be removed.

“Sometimes employers make assumptions about a person with disabilities without talking to them to find out their needs,” Lorick said.

He noted that there are several businesses in the area that hire workers who are disabled. And many employers are becoming more aware of the needs of disabled people, as war-wounded veterans return to the job market.

 Discrimination in housing is also a concern for convicted felons trying to return to society after serving their sentences, Lorick said.

Laws have been enacted to protect the public from people such as sex offenders and predators, but those people still need to find decent, affordable housing. Lorick said he was also asked to advocate for a person whose child got a felony conviction while attending college, but because the person was on the lease of his parent’s house, the landlord used the conviction to evict the other members of the family from their home.

Financial discrimination also occurs when a person cannot afford to make a positive move.

Lorick recalled how he assisted an elderly man on a fixed income who wanted to move from his subsidized housing into a senior housing center. The man couldn’t afford, however, to pay a deposit and first month’s rent on the new apartment while he was still paying rent on his current home. If he failed to pay his current rent in order to pay the new rent, he would face future financial and legal issues that could get him evicted from his new home.

“People face real tough situations and choices when it comes to housing,” Lorick said. “Sometimes those situations fail, and they end up homeless. It’s a vicious, vicious cycle.”

Discrimination can be very covert and hidden, he said. On the front-burner now is the treatment of LGBT persons.

“That is the issue we’re hearing most about now, and there’s a lot of room for activism,” Lorick said of protecting people’s rights and educating the public.

Justice Department intervention

On the federal level, one school discipline case that Samuels used as an example occurred in Meridian, Miss. School officials there were found to give far harsher consequences to minorities and students with learning disabilities than they were to white students who commit comparable offenses.

“A minor school offense should not land a student in a police station,” Samuels said. Now, the school system must provide support and intervention before a student can be excluded from school.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., the school system agreed to provide adequate language translation throughout the student disciplinary process as part of a settlement of a federal case. The district had 20,000 English language learners among its more than 100,000 students.

“Students can’t comply with rules when they can’t understand what they are supposed to be doing,” she said.

On the university level, addressing problems with sexual harassment, assault and gender bias were issues in Missoula, Mont. That case led to an agreement among local police forces and the university to respond appropriately on investigations and without gender bias.

Samuels also outlines more attention to protecting students who are gender non-conforming. One Minnesota school district had to reform its policies and practices on harassment. A school district in California came under federal scrutiny after a transgender student was denied restroom privileges on an overnight trip.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has also issued a policy memo that gives lawful same sex marriages the legal rights they deserve, Samuels said, with the goal of assuring same-sex marriages get the same protections, rights and privileges as opposite-sex marriages.

Housing discrimination also receives a lot of Justice Department attention.

“A family’s access to housing is almost always linked to credit,” Samuels said. In mortgage and auto lending, investigators have found that some lenders required minority borrowers to pay more interest or have stricter terms than white borrowers.

That strategy became evident in the wake of the nation’s housing crisis, Samuels said, when investigators found that minorities were also steered to more risky lenders, resulting in more mortgage foreclosures when people could not pay the penalties or balloon payments.

Changes in voting laws are also a concern, she said, with challenges being raised in Tennessee, Texas and North Carolina to state laws that undermine the intent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Samuels encouraged the advocates, attorneys and individuals at the symposium to contact the Justice Department whenever they experience a perceived discriminatory practice. A specific instance should be reported, she said, but the person reporting the incident will not have to prove their case in order to receive help.

“We have investigators to look into it,” she said. “Don’t feel like you have to have all your ducks in a row to approach us.”

The hotline for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice is 202-514-4609.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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