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An Explanation of ‘The Roots of Wokeness’

An Explanation of ‘The Roots of Wokeness’

“The Civil Rights Act of 1991 expanded Title VII remedies to include limited punitive damages and recovery for emotional distress”

Our current situation did not happen overnight.

Gail Heriot of Reason and the Volokh Conspiracy writes:

The Roots of Wokeness

My most recent working draft for an article is entitled The Roots of Wokeness:  Title VII Damage Remedies as Potential Drivers of Attitudes Toward Identity Politics and Free Expression. Here is the abstract:

How might things be different if Title VII’s remedial provisions had not been expanded by the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to allow for the recovery of compensatory and punitive damages, including damages for emotional distress? History doesn’t disclose its alternatives, but one possibility to consider is this: While the more generous remedies likely had many effects, both good and ill, ultimately two of the most lasting and consequential effects may have been to encourage the growth of identity politics and to weaken support for American norms of free expression—at least as those norms apply to statements that relate to race, sex, or national origin. We all know that culture affects law. But, one way or another, law affects culture, too.

The article discusses how the original Title VII, passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, limited successful plaintiffs to recovery for lost wages and/or injunctive relief (both of which were considered equitable remedies and hence not subject to jury trial).   It also provided an unusual benefit: recovery for attorneys’ fees. Given that individuals who might otherwise be interested in bringing a racial or sexual harassment complaint often had no desire for an injunction and hadn’t lost any wages, these limitations had the effect of keeping the number of harassment lawsuits small.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 expanded Title VII remedies to include limited punitive damages and recovery for emotional distress (common law remedies that required a right to a jury trial). Members of Congress intended these more generous remedies to be useful to plaintiffs in harassment cases. And given that the number of EEOC harassment complaints skyrocketed, they obviously were useful. But I wonder if those Members of Congress anticipated how their changes to the law would combine with the already existing attorneys’ fees remedy, the vaguely defined standard for harassment and in particular its cumulative nature, and the rule prohibiting retaliation against complainants. Taken together, these factors create a powerful incentive—perhaps more powerful than was intended—for employers to come down hard on anything relating to race, sex, or national origin that might cause offense.

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Comments

“And given that the number of EEOC harassment complaints skyrocketed, they obviously were useful.” Well, the story from the trenches in Chapel Hill, NC is the EEOC had to go looking for harassment complaints in the first few years. They came to Orange County with advertisements for people not to be afraid to file for emotional distress caused by employers (I being an employer there at the time). No one approached them during the week they were there, so they decided to come back again because EMPLOYEES WERE TOO AFRAID OF RETALIATION from employers to file a complaint. They were successful during the second trip there and in Durham, NC.

    artichoke in reply to Oracle. | March 4, 2022 at 12:21 am

    An aggressive takedown of our economy and society. I doubt we can rise again unless those laws are reversed, which is nowhere on the horizon.

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