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Civil Rights Policy

17 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2015 Last revised: 16 Jun 2015

Mark Tushnet

Harvard Law School

Date Written: April 2, 2015


This essay offers an overview of US civil rights policy from the nineteenth century to the present. The expansion of the range of substantive interests covered by the term “civil rights” has been accompanied by an increasing emphasis on the connection between equality and civil rights. From the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth, the term referred to racial equality with respect to whatever fit into the category, whether property rights, the right to vote, or social rights. Starting roughly in the middle of the twentieth century, “civil rights” began to be connected to other categories, such as gender, religion, sexual orientation, and by the twenty-first century quite a bit more. After examining the history of the idea and its implementation, the essay concludes with a discussion of contemporary controversies over disparate impact versus disparate treatment, affirmative action, and accommodation mandates.

Suggested Citation

Tushnet, Mark, Civil Rights Policy (April 2, 2015). Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 15-10. Available at SSRN: or

Mark Tushnet (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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