Is the future of civil rights subnational? If one is looking for civil rights innovation, much of this innovation might be happening through legislation, regulatory frameworks, and policies adopted by state and local governments. In recent years, states and cities have adopted legislation banning discrimination in housing based on the source of an individual's income, regulating the consideration of arrest or conviction in employment decisions, and prohibiting discrimination in employment based on an applicant's credit history.
This deployment of subnational power is not new to civil rights. Many of the laws and regulatory frameworks that are now core to the national civil rights framework started at the state level. Before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, states such as Wisconsin, New York, Massachusetts, and California banned discrimination on the basis of race in employment and housing. New York's administrative disparate impact standard was the precursor to the disparate impact standard that would eventually become ensconced in federal employment law. And more recently, the 1980s and 1990s saw proliferations of state antidiscrimination laws that prohibited sexual orientation discrimination, even as legislative protections have stalled on the national level.
What does appear novel, however, is the number of these initiatives in recent years alongside the possibility that these state measures might not end inevitably with national civil rights legislation. Indeed, for reasons of both political economy and institutional design, some of the most innovative examples of legislation and regulation to advance equality are likely to permanently reside at the subnational level. Many of these innovations build on recent movements to use local regulatory frameworks to increase wages and work conditions for lower income workers, and these innovations address not just identity exclusion based on race or ethnicity but also exclusions based on socioeconomic status. The political economy that sustains their emergence and implementation depends on demographics and political cultures that are largely centered on cities and large metropolitan regions. In addition, some of the innovations proliferating at the state and local levels such as local first-source hiring, community-benefits agreements (CBAs), and inclusionary zoning depend on regulatory powers exclusive to subnational governments.
These proliferating state and local interventions present a different conception of civil rights than one centered on the promulgation of federal frameworks and the deployment of federal regulatory power. The aim of the civil rights project is typically national – the goal is to advance rights that belong to all citizens.That some states and localities are first-movers or have moreexpansive legislation can be consistent with civil rights as a national project. Consistent with classic accounts of states and cities as laboratories of legislation and problemsolving, states and localities can provide the regulatory models for nationally adopted civil rights legislation. States and localities can also build support among citizens and political leaders to advance adoption of these initiatives at the national level.
But what if these initiatives are not in the service of an inevitable federal project of legislation and regulation? Today, one sees very little legislative activity at the federal level related to civil rights; all the interesting and important moves appear to be taken on by subnational governments. And amid uncertainty about whether these initiatives will be adopted by the federal government and diffuse "vertically," there is some evidence that these regulatory and legislative initiatives are spreading among jurisdictions.
The question, then, is whether the "local turn" in civil rights law can ever be a satisfactory equilibrium for those interested in advancing civil rights and equality law. This local approach raises questions concerning the mechanisms by which these innovations will spread from one locality to another, and whether localities will have the legal, regulatory, and financial power to advance a meaningful civil rights regime.
This article explores these questions and offers a cautiously hopeful account of these subnational innovations. As a practical matter, when large cities and metropolitan areas adopt these innovations, they are likely to have expansive demographic reach. Functionally, measures such as CBAs or inclusive zoning build on regulatory or legislative tools unavailable at the federal level. They thus expand the domains and points of intervention for advancing inclusion – diffusing civil rights norms to state and local actors. As a matter of political economy, these innovations, particularly those that address questions of economic inclusion like bans on source-of-income (SOI) discrimination and limitations on credit history depend on local movements and local politics. These local movements are hard to sustain at a national level and can play a crucial role in the politics of implementation. Finally, these subnational innovations are remaking the very nature of what we call "the civil rights project." Whether or not these innovations are fully successful yet, they demand a serious look if one is concerned with expanding regulatory models of inclusion. These new state and local measures provide routes around the limitations of the federal civil rights model in addressing subtle bias and structural exclusion.
Olatunde C. Johnson,
The Local Turn; Innovation and Diffusion in Civil Rights Law,
Law & Contemp. Probs.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/1096