The United States Supreme Court has taken a bold stance against any kind of racial or ethnic discrimination. And in so doing, the justices significantly broadened civil rights protections for all minority groups.
In a pair of unanimous rulings Monday dealing with racial discrimination against Jews and Arabs, the high court said that 19th-century federal antibias laws, interpreted up to now as applying mainly to blacks, also protect others.
While addressing specific cases, the justices also noted that antidiscrimination statutes refer to Scandinavians, Chinese, and Hispanics as members of distinct ``races.''
Observers say these these rulings have broad implications because they go to the heart of legal perceptions about race and discrimination.
Arabic, Jewish, and black groups had urged the court to extend protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to all races and ethnic groups. And the justices did so - ruling that the post-Civil War guarantee that ``all citizens shall have the same rights enjoyed by white citizens'' is a universal mandate and not just limited to non-Caucasians.
Writing for the court, Associate Justice Byron R. White stressed that the 100-year-old federal statute was designed primarily to protect blacks - but was also intended to help other ethnic groups.
``We have little trouble in concluding that Congress intended to protect from discrimination identifiable classes of persons who are subjected to intentional discrimination solely because of their ancestry or ethic characteristics,'' Justice White explained. He added: ``Such discrimination is racial discrimination that Congress intended to forbid, whether or not it would be classified as racial in terms of modern scientific theory.''
White said that an Arab or a Jew may be subject to discrimination even if he or she does not have a distinct ethnic appearance.
``A distinctive physiognomy is not essential to qualify'' for protection under the civil rights laws, he held.
The court further explained that while Arabs and Jews now are considered to be Caucasians, they were seen as members of distinct races at the time the federal legislation was enacted.
One of the cases, Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb, involved the desecration of a Maryland synagogue. Vandals had painted swastikas and Ku Klux Klan symbols on the edifice and marked it with other anti-Semitic graffiti.
Eight perpetrators were caught and admitted that they believed that Jews were members of a distinct and inferior race. The congregation then sued them for violation of its members' civil liberties.
The US District Court for Maryland and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, rejected this contention. These courts reasoned that the 1866 act was not intended to apply to Jews as a separate race. The US Supreme Court disagreed.
In the Arab case, St. Francis College v. Al-Khazraji, Majid Ghaidan Al-Khazraji, an associate professor of sociology at a Pennsylvania college, sued the school for alleged civil rights violations when he was denied tenure. A native of Iraq and a US citizen, he claimed the school improperly considered his ethnic background and his Muslim religion in deciding whether or not to promote him.
A federal trial judge dismissed the suit, holding that an Arab cannot sue for racial discrimination under US civil rights laws. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed the lower court.
The appellate panel said that federal antidiscrimination statutes were intended to ensure that all persons were treated equally without regard to race or color. The US Supreme Court agreed.