Structural Inequality and the Law: part II

K. Sabeel Rahman

In the 2015 case Texas v. Inclusive Communities Project (2014), the Court upheld the application of a disparate impact standard for judging violations of the Fair Housing Act, enabling advocacy groups to challenge urban development policies that (re)produced patterns of racial and economic segregation. In justifying this interpretation of the statute, Justice Kennedy offered in his majority opinion a brief account of the ways in which racial and economic segregation has persisted and been codified by a variety of legal and policy regimes, despite the formal elimination of de jure segregation.  Meanwhile, writing in dissent in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case where the Roberts Court struck down the preclearance protections of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Ginsburg provides in her opinion a lengthy exposition of the various “second-order” forms of voter suppression and discrimination, outlining how an apparently well-functioning democratic process in fact was riven by systemic patterns of discrimination and political inequality.

These glimpses are indicative of a growing awareness that social justice must be understood as a structural phenomenon encompassing a complex interplay of economic, racial, gender, and political dimensions. Many different legal and policy choices combine to create systemic forms of inequality and exclusion. As discussed in the previous post, one of the key ways these claims for greater inclusion and equity are precluded is by casting them as products of “natural” economic forces, not subject to human agency and alteration. However, even if structural forces are acknowledged to be within the scope of public redress, how to combat them is often viewed too narrowly. This post suggests that the remedies for structural inequities require a similarly structural approach.

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Structural Inequality and the Law: part I

K. Sabeel Rahman 

In the 2007 school desegregation case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court struck down the voluntary school desegregation efforts by Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington for employing an overly aggressive mode of racial balancing. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that de jure segregation—of the sort that marked the Jim Crow South—had been officially eliminated as in the case of Louisville, and had never been employed in Seattle. Thus whatever racial disparities existed in these regions were not the product of law. For such schools, Roberts wrote, “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” The systematic racial segregation of modern metro areas, long documented by urban scholars as a result of economic inequalities, racial wealth disparities, and deliberate policies of zoning and urban planning, did not factor into Roberts’ analysis.

A relative lack of concern for what might be termed “structural” inequality has characterized the Roberts Court’s voting rights jurisprudence as well. In Citizens’ United v. FEC, which upheld corporate campaign contributions as political speech, the Court ignored how disparities in economic wealth could skew the otherwise free-flowing marketplace of ideas or the dynamics of political competition. In Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts suggested that the preclearance regime established by the Voting Rights Act of 1964 to oversee voting regulations in many Southern states was no longer needed. In her dissent, Justice Ginsberg castigated Roberts’ argument as, among other things, exhibiting a blindness to more subtle “second-generation” barriers preventing minority groups from exercising their voting rights in full.

These glimpses point to a larger challenge for legal scholarship, analysis, and policymaking. The question of structural inequalities often stump courts and lawmakers alike. What does it mean for inequality to be “systemic”? Can any single actor be held responsible for such systemic or structural disparities? If these disparities are so diffuse, so baked into the background patterns of social and economic activity, how would they even be redressed or counteracted? This two-part series offers a means of conceptualizing both structural inequality and its means of redress.

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