Conference Celebrates Civil Rights Act of 1964, Notes Continuing Challenges

November 6, 2014

Article and images courtesy of TAMU Times

Johnson signs Civil Rights Act of 1964Martin Luther King, Jr. and others watch as President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination still exists in America, only the mechanisms have changed, according to presenters at a day-long, major interdisciplinary symposium on the topic held at Texas A&M University. Members of academia and advocates from around the nation came together to discuss strides made and work yet to be done at the conference titled “Global Citizens and Equality Fifty Years After the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Although this piece of legislation opened unprecedented opportunities and freedoms for African-Americans, women and other minorities, conference presenters asserted discrimination still exists in many forms − no longer through legislation as during the Jim Crow era, but rather through economic, social, political and judicial means.

Christine Stanley, acting vice provost for academic affairs and vice president and associate provost for diversity at Texas A&M, opened the conference by noting the presence of more than 150 high school students from the local area. “The Civil Rights Act did not resolve all problems with discrimination,” she told the crowd. “There is still racism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia. That’s why these discussions are so vitally important. Today let us have the courage to roar.”

Patricia Williams at TAMU Civil Rights SymposiumColumbia University School of Law Professor Patricia Williams was the keynote speaker.

During the conference luncheon, keynote speaker Patricia Williams, the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law, noted several high-profile cases of discrimination and racism in the years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act as evidence of continued racial tensions in America. One such case which made headlines recently resulted when Ohio mother Jennifer Cramblett, who is white, received a sperm donation from an African-American man, resulting in a mixed-race child named Payton; the mother is suing the sperm bank alleging “wrongful birth.”

Interspersing excerpts from court papers, Williams noted, “While purportedly bonding easily with the little girl, even so, Jennifer lives each day with fears, anxieties and uncertainty about her future and Payton’s future. Life is hard because Cramblett’s community is all white and ‘racially intolerant’ and Cramblett fears and suffers from limited cultural competency relative to African-Americans, having never met one until she got to college. Cramblett described feeling helplessly incensed when it came to having Payton’s hair cut – she had to travel far, far, far away from her neighborhood to a black neighborhood where Cramblett is obviously different in appearance and not overly welcomed…Jennifer’s stress and anxiety intensifies when she pictures Payton entering an all-white school…and the real issue is…in this incredibly separated and segregated society of ours, how invisible it is until we occasionally cross those boundaries and enter each other’s worlds, and suddenly feel the uniqueness of ourselves, the fear and the loathing on both sides of these walls.”

If Cramblett really wanted to feel better about her daughter’s “wrongful birth,” Williams concluded, all she would have to do is “wake up.”

Joe Feagin, Ella C. McFadden Professor and Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M, who does research on racism, sexism, and class issues, noted in his presentation that from the start of slavery in America to the end of legal segregation in the 1960s, “for 83 percent of our history, we have built a system of racial oppression that is one of the worst on the planet.” So, he added, it’s no surprise that civil rights laws only begin to make a dent and there is much work left to be done to end discrimination in America.

Civil Rights Symposium panel discussionPanelists discussing workplace discrimination.

In the panel discussion, “Education: Equal But Separate?” three professors, Cedric Merlin Powell, a faculty member at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, Phia Salter, Texas A&M Department of Psychology, and Rogelio Saenz, dean of the College of Public Policy and the Peter Flawn Professor of Demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio, addressed the school segregation of the past and how it continues to affect students today.

Salter gave a poignant example of how racial stereotypes affected her own education as an African-American woman who attended a predominantly white high school. She recalled an instance when she was called upon in class and acted as though she hadn’t completed the assignment, even though she had, out of fear she would give a wrong answer and thereby confirm a stereotype. “I lied and said I didn’t do the homework because I was so scared to be wrong,” she told the audience. “The stereotype of blacks is we are ignorant and lazy. It wasn’t until later that a name for this phenomenon emerged −‘stereotyped threat’; it arises when a person is in a situation when a negative stereotype becomes salient.”

In the panel discussion “Employment: Second Generation Discrimination,” workplace discrimination was addressed by Sharon Collins, Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Ruben Garcia, William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and Domonic Bearfield, Bush School at Texas A&M.

In the panel discussion “Criminal Justice: Targeting Race and Poverty,” Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, Wendy Leo Moore, Texas A&M Department of Sociology, and Professor SpearIt of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, discussed racial discrimination through the mechanism of criminal justice, noting the large disparity between the number of blacks incarcerated as compared to whites.

The conference also featured a panel discussion called “Global Citizenship: Constructing a Broader Civil Rights Agenda,” featuring James McGrath and Sahar Aziz, professors at Texas A&M University School of Law, and Mary Romero, Department of Sociology at Arizona State University, who addressed, among other issues, broadening civil rights to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

TAMU Times media contact: Lesley Henton, 979-845-5591,