How did passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 reflect changes in society?
Since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was enabled by the North's victory in the Civil War and the nationwide abolition of slavery, interpretations and circumventions of the intent behind that initial effort at ensuring civil rights for all Americans have provided the basis for a near-continuous series of further legislative efforts intended to resolve disputes over interpretations and to address issues that were not considered at the time. While there were leglislative "fixes" to certain provisions of that original civil rights measure, it was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that represented the most definitive effort by Congress and the president to address outstanding issues involving the rights of minorities and others. The 1964 Act strictly prohibited discrimination in the workplace on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." A series of court cases based on allegations of workplace discrimination followed passage of the 1964 Act, and some of them eventually made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the process of deliberating on these particular cases -- including Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins; Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, and Patterson v. McLean Credit Union -- the Court issued a series of rulings all of which were interpreted as weakening the intent of previous legislative efforts at eliminating discrimination. Common to these Supreme Court decisions was a fundamental shift in the burden of proof away from the employer and on to the employee filing the grievance. The cumulative effect of the Court's decisions in these cases was seen as a major reversal in the anti-discrimination agenda.
In order to resolve the problems that arose out of the Supreme Court decisions, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, a modified version of legislation that then-President George H.W Bush had rejected the year before on the basis of concerns regarding the potential establishment of racial quotas, which are highly anathema to many Americans. The 1991 Act redefined phrases in previous anti-discrimination laws to remove the legal impediments resulting from the Supreme Court's decisions to employees' ability to file suit against employers. For example, rather than require the employee filing suit for discrimination to identify the precise policy established by an employer targeting individuals on the basis of race, religion or any of the other categories, the new law allowed for aggrieved employees to demonstrate that a particular category of individual was suffering disproportionatly relative to other categories of employee. Another "fix" to the earlier laws provided in the 1991 Act reversed the impact of the Court's decision regarding the ability of an employer to terminate an employee on the basis of ethnicity, religion, etc., if the employer could establish that the termination would have occurred anyway on the basis of legitimate performance issues. The new law did not reverse that position, but did allow for the pursuit by the employee of financial damages in the form of legal fees to be reimbursed by the employer.
The 1991 Civil Rights Act represented the continuation of a legal process by which the federal government has attempted to eliminate the last vestiges of racism from society by addressing shortcomings in earlier legislative efforts.