The Problems & Progressive Local Solutions
Full civil rights throughout the United States have been elusive despite generations of struggle. Even where the movement has succeeded, its gains have required sustained support to remain law – the achievements of the Civil Rights Era, such as the Voting Rights Act, have faced concerted, organized pushback in courts and legislatures. Gender and racial equality, worker rights, voting rights, immigrant rights and more are under threat from corporations, wealthy individuals and at times a hostile federal government.
Local governments can take action to protect all people through expanding voting access, protecting tenant rights, working to protect immigrants from discrimination, exploring ways to address pay gaps, reforming the justice system, and more.
Available Local Levers & Targets of Reforms
Traditionally, city governments have taken the lead in local civil rights reforms. County governments and school boards also hold substantial authority over local civil rights through law enforcement, education, and zoning policy.
Local governments should also lobby their state to provide greater protections and more resources when it comes to reforms, such as expanding access to voting including enfranchisement for prisoners, expanding tenant’s rights, workplace and hiring discrimination and more.
Current Reforms & Tools to Fight for Them
Local authorities can take actions to move the conversation on civil rights forward and can facilitate investment in combatting discrimination. ProGov21 has numerous resources for local governments looking to advance a civil rights agenda. For example, St. Lewis passed an ordinance to reduce housing discrimination. Hartford ordinances protect immigrant use of city services, regardless of immigration status. Takoma Park has expanded voting rights in city elections to immigrants. Long Beach passed an ordinance reducing language barriers to accessing city programming and services. This Boston ordinance protects people with a criminal record when contracting with the city. Vicco, in Kentucky, has both a fair housing and fair employment ordinance aimed at preventing and providing remedies for discrimination. A Miami-Dade ordinance provides an example of local action against the multibillion-dollar problem of wage theft. Cities can help their residents with living wage ordinances, plans for residents with limited English proficiency, workplace violations and wage theft ordinances, paid sick time, protecting immigrants in the judicial system, and more.
The ACLU of California has put together model legislation – the Model Campus Safe Zones Resolution – that works to limit or eliminate local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.
Sanctuary policies offer many benefits to localities. Local authorities have several ways to protect immigrant populations, and model local legislation such as the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act can strengthen civil rights and liberties without federal action.
Cities can work to ensure racial equity in their contracting. Such equitable contracting both increases racial equality in the creation of public projects and models behavior for private corporations while increasing pressure on private contracting equity. Reforming police and the criminal legal system, such as through integrated mental health and criminal justice response, can facilitate equitable treatment of residents regardless of race or class. Mental health diversion in the judicial system can reduce reliance on county jails as the primary source of care for people suffering from mental illness. Cities focusing on policies that promote reentry and local hiring of people re-entering after serving time can reduce recidivism and strengthen protections for people with records. Basic access to courts is often problematic – improving access could be essential to a fair economy.
Taking it to the Next Level
The next step for local governments is taking a more holistic look at civil rights – working toward equal access to quality and affordable housing, substantive police reform, voting rights, job access, pay gaps, family planning, and more.
Local economic development plans must recognize racial disparities in economic outcomes and access and focus development at the neighborhood level. Progressive cities will combat racial and gender segregation and inequity across industries from services to construction and work to improve access to quality jobs. Robust worker protections must include antidiscrimination protections and enforcement to mitigate well-documented effects of discrimination against communities of color, LGBTQIA+ communities and others through intersectional policymaking.
Helpers & Allies
- Center for American Progress
- Immigrant Legal Resource Center
- VERA Institute for Justice
- Mayors Innovation Project
- Bill of Rights Defense Committee
- The Center for Progressive Reform