Professor Anita Hill said the ruling in a recent Supreme Court case involving housing discrimination is a step toward eliminating systemic racism, speaking at the celebration of her appointment as University Professor on Thursday, Sept. 24.
The case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project Inc., addresses “disparate impact theory” in housing, meaning policies are illegal if they harm a protected group. Hill said the case “recognizes the systemic effects of discrimination” and addresses how “unconscious bias” is entrenched in society. She also discussed the role of the university in examining and addressing discrimination.
A crowd of over 300 attended the address. The University Professor designation is given to faculty members whose work has “achieved exceptional scholarly or professional distinction within the academic community … and whose appointment will enhance the reputation and prestige of the university,” said Interim President Lisa Lynch as she introduced Hill. The Board of Trustees appointed Hill a University Professor in March. It is the highest distinction awarded to faculty.
Hill came into the public light when, in 1991, she accused now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings. Many believe the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee mistreated Hill and ignored her claims. At Brandeis, Hill studies racism, sexism, law and social policy, according to her Brandeis profile.
Hill said that each year she awaits “blockbuster Supreme Court decisions” that will impact areas such as sexism, racism and homophobia. Every year, she asks herself, “Will this year’s decisions bring us together, or will they exacerbate the disparities that we know exist, but seem helpless to bridge?”
In Texas, the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) sued the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) under the Fair Housing Act for providing more low income housing tax credits to developers in minority neighborhoods as opposed to majority white neighborhoods, claiming this led to segregation with minorities clustered in already low-income neighborhoods.
In the past, Hill explained, it was not enough to prove a group suffered discrimination as a result of a policy. One had to provide evidence of intent to discriminate through the law.
“Either you agree that you can prove discrimination by showing the effects of discrimination, or believe that you … should be able to prove discrimination only through showing the intent to discriminate,” said Hill in addressing the two philosophies.
The lower courts in Texas ruled in favor of the TDHCA according to this precedent. The court, however, ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Housing Authority’s practice was unconstitutional, allowing statistics demonstrating the disparity in low-income units between neighborhoods to serve as evidence.
“The ruling opens the door for addressing institutional bias and implicit prejudice,” in housing regarding race, class, familial status and other matters said Hill.
Hill said the debate over how to prove discrimination goes back to the Civil War, citing literacy tests and poll taxes as examples of “facially neutral” laws that the court overturned when examining “grandfather clauses,” allowing whites whose ancestors voted prior to the 15th Amendment to circumvent the tests.
Hill then gave examples in which, years later, the court ruled against defendants failing to prove intent to discriminate. In the 1960s, Hill said there was “a new wave of facially neutral policies that had a discriminatory effect.”
The Washington, D.C. police department, Hill said, employed a verbal test for recruits that, according to Hill, was four times as likely to exclude blacks than whites. Two “would-be police officers” sued the District; however, there was statistical evidence of discrimination, not proof of intent, so they lost the case.
Hill said there is “generations of rank discrimination that gets built into systems, that never gets questioned, you know, because it’s a part of tradition,” listing examples of unconscious bias. She cited companies that schedule meetings in the evenings posing difficulties for those with childcare responsibilities and the tradition of golf outings and other “exclusive clubs” for men.
She discussed the process of reaching a decision, describing how the Justices and lawyers argued for two hours about whether the phrase, “made otherwise unavailable” in the Fair Housing Act, referred to effects or the “actors’ intent.” During oral arguments, Hill said, Ginsburg discussed how, “the problem of housing discrimination is systemic,” and about education, transportation, neighborhood services, employment and policing in addition to housing.
Research in the social science is helping to correct these biases, according to Hill. She spoke about Justice Louis Brandeis, stating that Brandeis introduced “scientific and social science data” to law, and changing the way of responding to bias.
Hill then turned to the role of a university in correcting issues of systemic discrimination. She believes universities should teach their students how to analytically question systemic discrimination and to support scientific and social science research aimed at addressing social discrimination. She noted that the next generation of “Supreme Court Justices,” are in school today.
Hill said Brandeis can work to decrease discrimination under its motto, “truth unto its innermost parts.”
Coming to Brandeis 17 years ago as a guest lecturer, Hill is now a professor at the Heller School, and teaches in the Afro- and African-American Studies Department, the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, and the Social Justice and Social Policy Program. Hill completed her bachelor’s at Oklahoma State University and her law degree at Yale University.
“I just feel like I have been all across the university, not because I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to be, but because I wanted to be in just about every place,” said Hill, who joins Prof. David Hackett Fischer and Prof. Steve Goldstein as current University Professors.