Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Times change, and when they do, the law must as well. Much of the most important employment discrimination case law was established in the 1970s during an era when discrimination was both overt and pervasive. Moving forward forty years, discrimination has receded dramatically and is no longer seen as a default explanation for workplace decisions or statistical imbalances in a workforce. At the same time, the discrimination that remains is more complex, more subtle in nature and more difficult to identify. This article explores how the Supreme Court has navigated the declining but more complex nature of employment discrimination. In a series of recent cases, including the landmark sex discrimination case of Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court has embarked on a judicial updating of the foundation of employment discrimination law with the Court quietly announcing that the old case law no longer fits contemporary claims of discrimination. In other words, what counted as discrimination in the 1970s no longer does today. Despite the criticism the Court has received for its decisions, I conclude that the Court was right to shed its old doctrine as the inferences of discrimination that were permissible during an earlier era fail to account for our changed social conditions. The real problem with the Court’s recent updating of the doctrine is not the shedding of the old but what it has left in its place – the Supreme Court has failed to adapt its doctrine to capture the complexities of modern discrimination, thus leaving a substantial gap between what the law defines as discrimination and what we know about the difficulties of uncovering subtle discrimination. This article also critiques the recent academic emphasis on “implicit bias” and instead offers some suggestions for moving forward in a way that might better adapt the legal doctrine to the complexities of modern discrimination. This includes the use of testers to document workplace discrimination, more emphasis on educating courts and jurors regarding the nature of subtle discrimination (not implicit bias) and the role employer self-interests might play in bringing greater diversity to the workplace.