The ‘64 Act was the first federal civil rights law with teeth since Reconstruction, coming after a decade of delay, filibusters, and intentionally impotent legislation. Since its passage, nearly every federal agency has adopted regulations to implement Title VI of the Act, which outlaws discrimination in federally funded programs. Those regulations, and their enforcement, have helped to bring equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination to hundreds of health, transportation, educational, environmental, and other programs and institutions throughout the nation. They have expanded opportunity for millions of Americans and strengthened our nation tremendously.
But fifty years after Dr. King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, one federal agency has stood virtually alone in failing to adopt regulations implementing that provision of the Civil Rights Act. That agency is the Treasury Department, which describes itself as “the executive agency responsible for promoting economic prosperity and ensuring the financial security of the United States.”
Treasury’s failure to issue civil rights protections has spanned Democratic and Republican administrations over five decades. But it is especially galling today, given the harm that the banks and financial institutions that Treasury helps to regulate have done in communities of color, and to the principle of equal opportunity that inspired the ’63 march and ’64 Civil Rights Act.
Patterns of economic discrimination continue to take a heavy toll on our nation. A recent Urban Institute report found that differences in “wealth” – meaning savings minus debt – between racial groups are the largest they’ve been since the Federal Reserve began tracking the question. Twenty years after the March on Washington, in 1983, the average white family held five dollars in wealth for every dollar held by the average African-American or Latino family. Today, that ratio is six-to-one.
The Obama Justice Department has taken important steps to address some of these violations—including largest-ever settlements with Wells Fargo, Countrywide, AIG subsidiaries, and several other large institutions. But those actions are, by their nature, after the damage has been done. Treasury—along with the Department of Housing and Urban Development—can and must do more to prevent the use of federal funds to discriminate in the first place. This, after all, was the whole purpose behind Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
Civil Rights rules from Treasury would have a quick and important impact on equal opportunity for all Americans. Among the most pressing examples is the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which incentivizes private construction of housing that working class Americans can afford to rent. Title VI rules for the LIHTC program would guarantee that exclusionary local practices like local “residency preferences” or cronyism do not exclude families of color from homes they can afford, or from the pathway to opportunity that a safe and affordable home provides.
These basic civil rights protections are long overdue, and will bring tangible benefits to millions of families and children. By connecting more Americans to opportunity, they will also seed our nation's long-term prosperity.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act is the most tangible and systemic outcome of the 1963 March on Washington. Fifty years after the March, its full promise should be realized.
Jenkins is the executive director of The Opportunity Agenda.