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The Civil Rights Act of 1991 Essay

The constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights was supposed to be enough to guarantee equal rights for all people, however, after the emancipation of slaves, the government needed to ensure the equality of the freed people so created the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

Since then there have been Civil Rights Acts in 1871, 1957, 1964, 1972, and 1991. Each act reinforces the one before it and adds one or two new provisions. This repetitive action shows that the only way people pay attention to a civil rights act is if another is brought to light, and remind society that everyone is supposed to be treated equally.

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The most recent Civil Rights Act of 1991 was a compromise culminating from two years of negotiations, and a failed proposal in 1990. This original act “targeted six 1989 Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the reach and remedies of laws prohibiting employment discrimination and made it harder to prove job discrimination and easier to challenge affirmative-action programs” (Congressional Quarterly 1990, 462).

It was passed in the Senate after 8 weeks of discussion with a vote of 65-34 and passed in the House of Representatives with a vote of 273-154 on August 3. Both houses passed it despite the Bush Administration’s constant pledge that he would be against the bill. Most Congressional members, however, believed that Bush would not risk the political cost of vetoing a Civil Rights Act, Bush took a risk and did veto the piece of legislature.

In-text accompanying the veto, Bush states his reasons for his actions. He first states his position on discrimination saying that “discrimination whether on the basis of race, national origin, sex, religion, or disability is worse than wrong” (Congressional Quarterly 1990, p. 472) so as to make clear that he is not against the anti-discrimination part of the bill.

He gives his reason by saying that “despite the use of the term ‘civil rights’ in the title of S 2104, the bill actually employs a maze of highly legalistic language to introduce the destructive force of quotas into our nation’s employment system” (Congressional Quarterly 1990, p. 472). Bush felt that the possibility of job quotas being made outweighed the benefits of a non-discriminatory work environment.

Bush felt strongly enough about job quotas to cause the first defeat of a major Civil Rights Bill in 25 years. Congress was just 3 Senate votes, and 12 House of Representative votes shy of overriding the presidential veto with a two-thirds majority. Because of Bush’s fear of quotas, another year in Congress was wasted revising the bill to give it ambiguous enough language to be accepted

This bill based in 1991 took a new political strategy from the start, it became a sales pitch to women, stressing strongly the difference between this act and the one in 1964. The act of 1991 “ . . . amended Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to allow limited money damages for victims of harassment and other intentional discriminations based on sex, religion or disability” (Congressional Quarterly 1991, p. 251). Racial minorities already could seek an unlimited amount of money, but nothing specified that these other groups could seek damages. Women were still the minority in the workplace, women felt they should be able to sue if they are being discriminated against or harassed.

The other part of the act that drew support from women was Title II- Glass Ceiling, “this title sets up a ‘Glass Ceiling Commission’ to focus attention on, and complete a study relating to, the existence of artificial barriers to the advancement of women and minorities in the workplace, and to make recommendations for overcoming such barriers” (The Civil Rights, p. 8). Before this, no legislation was ever posed to stop the very common occurrence of ignoring a woman who is better suited for the job simply because she is a woman. By centring this act, which is almost the same as the 1990 bill, on women and sexual harassment instead of general job discrimination Congress hoped to draw more support in Congress to get those extra votes needed in case Bush vetoed again.

Besides the social effects of the law, there were also legal consequences. Bush and the Congress both had to compromise in this respect. Bush wanted the bill to apply only to court cases at the time of enactment and in the future, and not to those that had already passed. Proponents of the bill argued that the six court cases that ignited the need for a new bill should be judged upon the new legislation. In the end “the courts . . . were left to decide whether the new law applied to cases pending at the time of its enactment. The bill’s language was not clear” (Congressional Quarterly 1991, p 251).

In December of that year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a statement saying the law only covered cases begun after enactment, thus settling the issue. “The earlier version . . . would have reversed more court rulings and been more generous toward workers suing their employers for bias” (Congressional Quarterly 1991, p 252), thus it was a compromise that ultimately favouring Bush.

Something the bill did not compromise on was the burden of proof. Both the proposed and passed acts “shift the burden or proof to the employer on the issue of ‘business necessity’ in disparate impact cases” (Congressional Quarterly 1990, p. 472). This is something that the president did not object to, so Congress was ecstatic that it had one less thing it had to compromise on.

If the Civil Rights Act of 1991 is summarized, then it changed old laws by the following: allowing minorities, besides just racial groups, to sue for damages, shifting the burden of proof to the employer, and also allowing any plaintiff the right to a trial by jury in such a case. It took the elite of America two years of debates and over two hundred years in the making to decide these simple things. The moral majority’s view on this was very clearly summarized by John Lewis, a Georgia Democratic Representative:

It is a shame and a disgrace that in 1991 we are still debating whether or not we should protect our fellow American citizens from discrimination . . . The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society. (Congressional Quarterly 1991, p 255)

It should not have been necessary to have any Civil Rights Act, let alone in America after all the history that proves there has always been an effort to create equality. It is doubted that this will be the last act of its kind. Cases will always be heard that are very close to calling. In the future, another act will be made which clarifies this one further, and then another and another. Until the original ideals of the first legislation are enacted, new Civil Rights will be enacted to try and reinforce the need to just have everyone treated the same.


The 46th Annual Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 102nd Congress, Second Session 1990, Volume XLVI. Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1991.

The 47th Annual Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 102nd Congress, First Session 1991, Volume XLVII. Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1992.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991, [Online]. Producer: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Available:

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