A Rights Act at Last

THANK you, Anita Hill, for the civil rights act of 1991.Two weeks ago, a lot of American women got angry at Republicans for their treatment of Professor Hill's allegations that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Can it be only a coincidence that President Bush suddenly agreed to a civil rights measure he has opposed for two years? The bill increases the power not just of minorities, but also of women to combat discrimination in the workplace. The president says that, after negotiations with senators last week, he finally got a bill that doesn't encourage "quotas." No matter. The important thing is that the president will sign legislation that reverses the effects of five Supreme Court decisions in 1989 that limited the legal rights of minorities and women who are discriminated against in hiring or promotion. The central issue in the long battle over the legislation, which included a presidential veto of a similar measure last year, has been seemingly neutral hiring or promotion standards that have a "disparate impact" in locking out women or minorities - such as height or strength requirements, or an employer's requirement that all workers have high school diplomas. Sometimes, of course, such requirements are reasonably related to job performance, but the bill places on employers the burden of proving that e mployment standards and practices don't unnecessarily discriminate. Opponents of the bill contended that employers, to avoid the onerous and expensive task of proving that all their employment criteria have a business necessity, would simply "hire by the numbers" to avoid litigation. The key breakthrough was to give employers more flexibility in proving the business necessity of employment standards that appear to have a disparate impact. Even with that concession, however, the law gives minorities and women a powerful weapon. Great credit goes to Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri for his persistence in finding common ground with a recalcitrant White House. We said earlier that President Bush appeared to be playing racial politics with the civil rights act. We're glad that he, for whatever reason, has addressed that perception by agreeing to this needed piece of legislation.

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