The Origins of Arguments over Reverse Discrimination: Lessons from the Civil Rights Act of 1866
Southern Illinois University Press
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
Disputes, disagreement, ambiguity, and ambivalence have marked the law of affirmative action since it came to prominence in the Civil Rights Era, nearly 50 years ago. These current controversies might be attributed to modern attitudes, and in particular, the need to delay enforcement of a strict colorblind conception of prohibitions against discrimination until the continuing effects of racial and ethnic discrimination have been eliminated. But a look at the origins of the civil rights law in Reconstruction belies this modernist perspective, which foreshortens debates to the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education rather than rediscovering their origins in Reconstruction. This article attempts to rediscover those origins by re-examining the legislative history and immediate reception of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 as it bears upon race-conscious remedies for racial discrimination. The argument proceeds in three parts. The first concerns the 1866 Act itself and the congressional debates over it, which featured charges of special treatment despite the neutral terms of the act. The second compares the act to the legislation authorizing the Freedmen’s Bureau, where arguments of special treatment carried more force, so much so that the authorization for the bureau had to remain temporary and it lapsed well before Reconstruction ended. The third part briefly considers the implications of this comparison for modern civil rights law, and in particular, for constitutional arguments over affirmative action. No one-to-one correspondence exists between the legislative debates in 1866 and constitutional arguments today, but the debates then have left their traces now in concerns over special remedies for discrimination, and in particular, over how long they last.
George Rutherglen, The Origins of Arguments over Reverse Discrimination: Lessons from the Civil Rights Act of 1866, in Christian G. Samito The Greatest and the Grandest Act: The Civil Rights Act of 1866 from Reconstruction to Today, Southern Illinois University Press, 209-233 (2018).