Attentive students crowded the Alumni Center Banquet Room on Thursday night to hear a passionate lecture on civil rights from Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford.
Ford’s background in law showed Thursday night as he paced enthusiastically, urging to the audience to rethink concepts he believes are taken for granted.
“He raised interesting questions about the role of rights,” said Matt DeCapo, graduate student in geography.
Ford proposed that, while rights are sometimes an excellent tool, many people single-mindedly focus on them while neglecting results. He criticized this approach as counterproductive and, throughout, called for collective action.
Referencing the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, Ford noted that “on Brown’s 50th birthday, we heard a lot of celebration, but two-fifths of black and Latino students still attended schools that were over 90 percent non-white.”
He argued that “schools re-segregated when federal courts decided they didn’t need to continue the effort.”
To illustrate the problem, Ford pointed to Walmart v. Dukes, a potential class action lawsuit filed by 1.5 million women against the retail giant that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.
“The applicant pool was 75 percent women, but few women were in management positions,” Ford explained.
Although the case would have been the largest class suit in American history, Ford said that it was unfairly denied its day in court when the Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiffs did not share enough commonalities to constitute a class.
“The statistical disparity showed us there was something wrong, but no individual woman could show discrimination,” Ford said.
To avoid similar failures in the future, Ford called for systemic, comprehensive regulations.
“We have to move away from the idea that we can’t make value judgments between benign and malign forms of discrimination,” Ford said. “We need to move away from individual entitlement and towards collective action.”
After the lecture, Ford fielded questions from the audience on his plan for moving forward.
“Federal agencies who enforce anti-discrimination laws don’t actually have the power to do so,” Ford said. “They should be able to intervene when they have disparities in promotions.”
While problems result from systemic incentives, Ford maintained that “those incentives can be changed.”