Magazine article Poverty & Race

Title VI Enforcement in the Post-Sandoval Era

Magazine article Poverty & Race

Title VI Enforcement in the Post-Sandoval Era

Article excerpt

Enforcement of our preeminent civil rights era statute, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has been essentially sidelined since the Supreme Court's 2001 decision in Alexander v. Sandoval, holding that "disparate impact" liability claims under the Title VI regulations could not be filed by private parties in court. Racial impact claims against recipients of federal government funding could in theory still be filed administratively in the civil rights division of the responsible federal agency, but private Title VI cases filed in court were now limited to claims of intentional discrimination prohibited by the statute itself.

The scope of what civil rights advocates and their clients lost in Sandoval is staggering- in the decade or more prior to the decision, advocates and researchers had begun to develop a more complete understanding of the mechanisms of structural disadvantage built into policies and practices of a wide range of government-funded programs, and filed compelling impact litigation to reform these systems. These claims addressed environmental justice, health equity, municipal services, transportation equity, law enforcement and K-12 education systems.

Just a few examples of these preSandoval racial impact claims include Linton v. Commissioner of Health and Environment (1990), where the NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought a successful claim against a Tennessee policy reducing the number of hospital beds for Medicaid recipients; Labor/Community Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union et al. v. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (consent decree 1996), a class action challenging a separate and unequal system of transportation for people of color in Los Angeles (arguing that MTA spent 70% of its operating budget on 6% of its ridership who are rail passengers, instead of their bus ridership who were 81 % black, Latino and Asian and 60% poor); and Mussington v. St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center (1994), a challenge to the relocation of in-patient maternal and child care services away from medically underserved areas of New York City.

After Sandoval, in theory, enforcement of such racial impact claims could have been taken up administratively by the federal government, in the civil rights offices of the appropriate federal agencies. However, the timing of the Sandoval decision (2001) coincided with the arrival of a new federal administration that had little interest in pursuing racial impact claims, and as a result virtually none were pursued during the next eight years.

At the same time, after 2001, advocates made repeated and unsuccessful efforts in Congress to "fix" Sandoval with an amendment to Title VI clarifying that racial impact claims can be brought directly in court. Barring a statutory amendment, advocates' focus is now turning back to the potential for administrative enforcement of the Title VI regulations.

For a federal administrative enforcement strategy for Title VI to succeed, several ingrethents are necessary. First, social science researchers and Legal Services and civil rights advocates need to continue to work intentionally together to analyze the racial impacts of government policies affecting low-income families- and the precise mechanisms that create these impacts. Second, communities need to be educated and mobilized around these discriminatory impacts. Third, the capacity of state and local legal advocacy groups needs to be enhanced to support the prosecution of these complex claims over a period of years. …

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