After Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 — establishing citizenship for newly emancipated slaves — President Andrew Johnson vetoed it, voicing concern that it was “made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race," the Washington Post reports. But lawmakers overrode his veto, enacting one of the nation’s first building blocks of an equal society. Now, 157 years later, the law has become central to the legal battle over what is fair and equal when it comes to race in the workplace. In recent years — and especially since the Supreme Court overturned race-conscious college admissions in June — the Reconstruction-era law has emerged as a critical tool for conservatives intent on dismantling race-specific programs that promote “diversity, equity and inclusion,” or DEI. More than a dozen lawsuits — nearly all filed within the past three years — use the law to allege reverse discrimination. The plaintiffs include former employees at major companies, small-business owners, government contractors, college undergraduates and conservative activists.
All say they’re fighting for a colorblind society, and that programs intended to bolster economic participation for certain racial and ethnic groups have unfairly shut out Whites and, in some cases, Asians. Critics call these claims a perversion of the law’s original intent. It’s ironic, they say, that legislation meant to grant former slaves basic civil rights — and make it illegal to deprive them of those rights because of their race or color — is being used to stifle advancement by Black and minority professionals and entrepreneurs in industries in which they have long been underrepresented. Moreover, affirmative action was meant to redress centuries of discrimination, not punish Whites or Asians. Even with such programs, people of color are vastly underrepresented in the top tiers of the business world: There are only eight Black CEOs among Fortune 500 companies — the highest number since the list started in 1955. And of the $214 billion in venture capital funding allocated in 2022, a scant 1.1 percent went to companies with Black founders, according to Crunchbase.
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