When I was in law school, a white male student ran for a position in our student body government. In his campaign statement, he said that if elected, he would eliminate funding for the school’s minority organizations and use the money to “blow lines” off the taut stomachs of Southeast Asian boys. At a town hall meeting, this man still did not seem apologetic and told us to lighten up, that it had just been a joke. Many minority students, including yours truly, were outraged. When people ask why I became a civil rights lawyer and involved in progressive causes, I cite that incident as one of several defining moments. Because it was heartbreaking that someone in San Francisco these days would still think that racist jokes were acceptable, and that some people didn’t think it was a big deal.
The election results brought new heartbreak. Whatever theories emerge about the outcome, one thing remains clear – there is still so much to be done to protect our civil rights. If you think we are safe from racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia in this country, think again. If you think that the laws we have in place offer enough protection to prevent unfair treatment, think again. If you think that there are too many complaints about discrimination and harassment, think again.
Our state’s public policy is clear:
“It is hereby declared as the public policy of this state that it is necessary to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination or abridgment on account of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status.
It is recognized that the practice of denying employment opportunity and discriminating in the terms of employment for these reasons foments domestic strife and unrest, deprives the state of the fullest utilization of its capacities for development and advancement, and substantially and adversely affects the interests of employees, employers, and the public in general.”
Discrimination in any form adversely affects us all. It’s not a joke, and it’s definitely a big deal. People who come to my office are not litigious by nature – they have suffered real harm and mistreatment in the workplace simply because of who they are. Because their skin is not white. Because they are women. Because they were not born in this country and speak imperfect English. Because of who they pray to. Because they are perceived as too old or too disabled to work. Because they love their same-sex partner. Because of these and other immutable qualities that are supposed to be embraced and protected under our laws and under human decency.
If you think we’ve progressed to be more inclusive, look harder at what this nation has revealed about itself. And look harder at the work that needs to be done. Now more than ever, we need to continue seeking justice, fair treatment, and equal opportunities for all.