We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
With these words, the authors of the Declaration of Independence outlined a bold vision for America, a nation in which all people would be free and equal. More than two hundred years later, it has yet to be achieved. Though generations of civil rights activism have led to important gains in legal, political, social, employment, educational and other spheres, the forced removal of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of those of African descent marked the beginnings of a system of racial injustice from which our country has yet to break free. From our public schools where students of color are too often confined to racially-isolated, underfunded and inferior programs, to our criminal justice system that disproportionately targets and incarcerates people of color and criminalizes poverty, to the starkly segregated world of housing, the dream of full equality remains an elusive one.
What We Do:
In pursuit of a world free of discrimination, the Racial Justice Program brings impact lawsuits in state and federal courts throughout the country, taking on cases designed to have a significant and wide-reaching effect on communities of color. In coalition with ACLU affiliates in each state, other civil rights groups, and local advocates, we lobby in local and state legislatures and support grassroots movements. we strive to educate and empower the public on a variety of issues.
From unequal learning opportunities to an over-reliance on school-based police officers to enforce schools’ harsh zero-tolerance policies, many students, overwhelmingly students of color, face very adult consequences for adolescent mistakes. The ACLU’s education work centers on a disturbing trend called the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” a set of policies in our nation’s public schools that push an alarming number of kids into the juvenile and criminal justice systems when they most need support from their schools and communities. The ACLU Racial Justice Program challenges racial discrimination, disproportionate discipline, segregation, and criminalization of children of color in schools across the country. In recent years, the ACLU has also begun to challenge the privatization of public schools through voucher systems that have left many students – in particular, students of color and students with disabilities – behind in underfunded public schools.
Despite claims that the United States has entered a “post-racial era,” the targeting of people of color for detentions, interrogations, and searches by law enforcement based on perceived race, ethnicity, national origin or religion remains a deep-seated and pervasive problem across the country. Racial profiling violates the Constitution’s core promise of equal protection of the law, treating people differently because of the color of their skin, they language they speak, or the faith they practice rather than reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. It alienates communities and reduces the trust necessary for effect law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels. The ACLU Racial Justice Program exposes and challenges racially biased law enforcement practices, including the racial profiling of air passengers by airlines and federal officials and discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices by police, through public education, advocacy, and litigation.
For much of the country’s history, formal and explicit racial restrictions prevented people of color from accessing the mainstays of economic life – such as employment and home ownership – based on race. Though such explicit racial classifications were outlawed by the civil rights statutes passed in the 1960s, yawning disparities in wealth, income, and other economic opportunities remain, preventing us from achieving true racial justice in America. These racially disparate outcomes reflect a combination of covert discrimination, structural inequality, and implicit biases, and they have become more severe in the continuing aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008. Focusing especially on issues relating to credit and home ownership, the ACLU uses litigation and other advocacy to remedy deeply entrenched sources of inequality and ensure that access to opportunity is not allocated according to race. Because, as Dr. King put it, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
Nearly two centuries ago, the United States formally abolished the use of incarceration to punish people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, recent years have witnessed the rise of modern-day debtors’ prisons—the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay court fines, costs and fees they can never hope to afford, through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights. Illegal criminal justice debt collection practices have a devastating impact on communities of color due to the combined effect of racial profiling by law enforcement and the racial wealth gap. The ACLU and ACLU affiliates are working to end once and for all the unconstitutional jailing of people too poor to pay criminal justice debts and other abusive practices.