Tlaib proposes changes to Civil Rights Act

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib speaks during a Detroit City Council committee of the whole public hearing.

A Detroit Democrat running for former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr.’s open seat is proposing sweeping changes to the nation’s Civil Rights Act if elected.

Former State Rep. Rashida Tlaib said Wednesday she wants to target policies that disproportionately affect people of color, tighten the Title IX law and end the overuse of mandatory arbitration in corporate discrimination cases.

The first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan Legislature and a lawyer for the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice, Tlaib is one of six candidates in a crowded Democratic primary race to replace Conyers, who resigned in December amid sexual harassment allegations by former staffers. She could be the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress.

Among her Democratic opponents are Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, state Sen. Ian Conyers of Detroit, former state Rep. Shanelle Jackson of Detroit, Westland Mayor Bill Wild and state Sen. Coleman A. Young II. 

The proposed changes would help to restore the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to its original intent, Tlaib said, and were inspired by complaints from “overwhelmed” residents she met while campaigning door-to-door. Introducing the changes would be her first act as a congresswoman, if elected, Tlaib said. 

“It’s 55 years old and it’s time,” Tlaib said the Civil Rights Act. “It’s time to look at this in a much more in-depth way.”

Civil rights was a big issue for former Congressman Conyers, who represented a Detroit-based district for more than a half-century. A large chunk of the 13th Congressional District includes a section of Detroit, whose population is predominantly African-American.

The changes Tlaib proposes would allow victims to file civil rights lawsuits based on disparate impact — for individuals and in certain private, regulated industries. She said she wants to eliminate barriers in Title IX cases that “create incentives” for officials to remain ignorant of problems.  And she seeks to end the abuse of “mandatory arbitration” in corporate discrimination cases. 

The changes would help to end practices such as “redlining,” or refusing car and home loans or insurance to people who live in low-income areas; law enforcement profiling; sentencing inconsistencies; the use of credit scores to determine qualification for loans, insurance or employment; shutoffs of water and utility services and unfair tax assessments and foreclosures. She also argues the reforms would overturn state and federal budget policies that restrict low-income communities of color from getting funding for infrastructure, schools, hospitals and community recreation facilities.

“These are things that will help transform the lives of families for the better,” Tlaib said.

The plan faces an uphill battle in Washington, D.C., where Republicans control the Senate, House and White House. Because neither Democrats nor Republicans have had an overwhelming control of Capitol Hill, major legislation hasn't passed in recent years.

“Absolutely, it’s going to take me years, possibly several tries to succeed,” she said.

The changes may be a far reach in a Republican-controlled Congress, but so was Conyers’ plan to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday, said Democratic political consultant Greg Bowens. Introduced in 1968, Conyers' bill to make King’s birthday a federal holiday wasn’t signed into law until 1983 under President Ronald Reagan.

“Even a wish list, when it seems like an impossible dream, can come true,” Bowens said.

The changes are an issue the Democratic base in the 13th District would likely support, Bowens said, but voters may question Tlaib’s motivations this close to the primary election.

The people who vote in primaries, who are typically more active in partisan politics, may doubt the timing of her announcement, he said.

“She’s not completely without a progressive record, but at the same time the idea of revamping civil rights laws in order to benefit folks is an idea that could have been advanced a long time ago,” Bowens said.

The proposed changes are a direct response to the complaints Tlaib said she heard on the campaign trail.

Before proposing the changes, "I had to listen to people," Tlaib said. "I had to talk to my families to see what the top issues were and they were around education, car insurance and home ownership.”

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