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Was the Disparate Impact Theory a Mistake?

83 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2006  

Michael Selmi

George Washington University Law School


The disparate impact theory has long been viewed as one of the most important and controversial developments in antidiscrimination law. In this article, Professor Selmi assesses the theory's legacy and challenges much of the conventional wisdom. Professor Selmi initially charts the development of the theory, including a close look at Griggs v. Duke Power Co. and Washington v. Davis, to demonstrate that the theory arose to deal with specific instances of past discrimination rather than as a broad theory of equality. In the next section, Professor Selmi reviews the success of the theory in the courts through an empirical analysis and concludes that the theory has had a strikingly limited impact outside of the context of written employment tests and is, in fact, an extremely difficult theory on which to succeed. In the final section, Professor Selmi contends that whatever gains the disparate impact theory has produced could likely have been obtained through other means, particularly in large urban cities, and that the theory may have had the unintended effect of limiting our conception of intentional discrimination. Disparate impact theory has always been seen as beginning where intentional discrimination ends, and by pushing an expansive theory of impact we were left with a truncated theory of intentional discrimination, one that continues to turn on animus and motive. Rather than a new legal theory of discrimination, what was needed, Professor Selmi concludes, was a greater societal commitment to remedying inequities and the ultimate mistake behind the theory was a belief that legal theory could do the work that politics could not.

Suggested Citation

Selmi, Michael, Was the Disparate Impact Theory a Mistake?. UCLA Law Review, Vol. 53, p. 701, 2006; GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 188. Available at SSRN:

Michael L. Selmi (Contact Author)

George Washington University Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States
202-994-1550 (Phone)

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