Donald Trump is attempting to hamstring one of the nation’s most powerful racial justice laws in the final hours of his presidency. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits entities receiving federal funding from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin.
Even before the law’s passage in 1964, there was a broad understanding that discrimination need not be intentional for it to be illegal under the act. In the year before signing the bill, President John F. Kennedy said, “Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination.”
The earliest implementation of the law also supported this interpretation. Regulations implementing the Civil Rights Act, published in 1966, state that organizations may not “utilize criteria or methods of administration which have the effect of subjecting individuals to discrimination because of their race, color, or national origin.”
More than a half century ago, the government knew it could not limit civil rights prosecutions to only situations of explicit and intentional discrimination. And in the decades since, federal agencies and their regulations have consistently understood the law to address actions that result in unjustified racial disparities.
The Trump Department of Justice issued an 11th-hour proposal to redefine the application of the Civil Rights Act, limiting enforcement to situations of intentional discrimination. This would not only cast aside 54 years of settled understanding, but it does so without the usual—and legally required—notice and comment period.