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THE FUTURE OF CIVIL RIGHTS IN AMERICA, March 10, 2023 By Jill Collen Jefferson


In American civil rights, we’ve moved away from our mission and strayed from the integrity of

our goal. We need more than grabbing microphones and headlines to institute the systemic

change necessary to stop the senseless and relentless violence towards Black Americans. It’s

time for a renaissance of civil rights in America where we uplift ideas instead of ambulance

chasers and focus on progress instead of pain.

The strategies ideated, voiced, and more importantly implemented by the likes of Charles

Hamilton Houston, and Constance Baker Motley throughout the 1940s and 1950s to end

segregation in schools represent the best of civil rights. Motley for example, a civil rights hero

who doesn’t receive the fame she deserves, developed and executed legal strategies to

desegregate numerous public universities, in addition to writing the legal brief for Brown vs.

Board of Education on behalf of the NAACP.

In[BB1] today’s attention-driven media environment though, media-savvy lawyers are rising to the

top of the public’s conscious even though they are doing little to prevent future crimes. Because

in the end, the fight for civil rights isn’t won press conference by press conference, it’s won by

dismantling prejudiced systems and the numerous laws that uphold them.

As a civil rights attorney, one thing you must prove in most cases is that the perpetrator of a

rights violation had the intent to carry out their wrongful action. What most don’t realize is that

the process for determining an individual’s intent was created by judges, not cognitive scientists.

As a result, these “standards of intent” don’t align with how human beings actually form intent in

their minds. That’s one reason why it’s hard to hold an officer accountable when he kills

someone in cold blood, and why it’s nearly impossible to find a corrections officer liable for an

Eighth Amendment [BB2] violation, which protects individuals from cruel and unusual


These standards are at the core of why so many Black people in this nation say, rightfully, the

criminal justice system is unjust. These standards are why it seems like we’re running in place

instead of making progress.

In fact, some amendments, like the Fourth Amendment’s excessive force standard, are objective

rather than subjective, meaning a court determines liability based on what a “reasonable officer”

in that position would have done. But even then, the standard is not truly objective.

This means that the next phase of civil rights, if civil rights is truly to evolve and evolve society

along with it, is dismantling these flawed intent standards that protect discrimination and hate.

What if in Fourth Amendment excessive force cases, courts carried out a test analogous to the

test for Batson violations, where the judge would require an officer to prove that his justifications

for using excessive force were not pretextual? Officers would have to prove that their actions

were justified instead of victims having to prove they weren’t.

And what if the Eighth Amendment test for prison conditions cases paralleled Title VII’s

disparate impact test for discrimination, which we know works?

Consistently holding officers accountable would lead to fewer instances of misconduct and

thereby fewer suits, saving cities millions. Imagine a world where those financial savings funded

a living wage and innovation labs in rural, impoverished towns. These labs could focus on

solving pressing problems in society. Rather than searching only for an existing job, the

unemployed would have the option of developing ideas, building initiatives, or creating products

that would help to mitigate social issues such as poverty or injustice while receiving their

unemployment benefits. Hired facilitators would guide individuals through design-thinking

exercises. Ideas that meet predetermined criteria would be chosen as social initiatives to be

supported by the federal government. The person(s) who created the idea would then be hired by

the government to facilitate the idea’s rollout. They would also receive a tax credit for working

in the lab. As the chosen ideas develop, other unemployed or impoverished individuals in the

community would be the first ones sought out and considered for jobs that the chosen ideas


The lab could flag applicable concepts and inform the Minority Business Development Agency

(MBDA) of them so that the MBDA can help in growing or manifesting the concept. Through

these labs, those who are directly impacted by poverty (and thereby the best ones suited to

understanding their needs) can help address community needs. This process should begin by

attorneys challenging intent standards in court and Congress passing a bill that will change

standards of intent in civil rights cases.

Laws about intent should be based on the science of intent. It should be the norm that if an

officer violates someone’s rights, the law will ensure they are held accountable. It should be

routine in America that justice is automatic. It should be the standard that parts of the law that

require science should be determined by scientists and not judges. Changing these intent

standards could change the course of civil rights in America.

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