Racial Justice

Racial Justice

The ACLU Racial Justice Program aims to preserve and extend constitutionally guaranteed rights to people who have historically been denied their rights on the basis of race. The Program is committed to upholding racial equality and combating racism in all forms through litigation, community organizing and training, legislative initiatives, and public education to address the broad spectrum of issues that disproportionately and negatively impact people of color.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

With these words, the authors of the Declaration of Independence outlined a bold vision for America, a nation in which all people would be free and equal. More than two hundred years later, it has yet to be achieved. Though generations of civil rights activism have led to important gains in legal, political, social, employment, educational and other spheres, the forced removal of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of those of African descent marked the beginnings of a system of racial injustice from which our country has yet to break free. From our public schools where students of color are too often confined to racially-isolated, underfunded and inferior programs, to our criminal justice system that disproportionately targets and incarcerates people of color and criminalizes poverty, to the starkly segregated world of housing, the dream of full equality remains an elusive one.

What We Do

In pursuit of a world free of discrimination, the Racial Justice Program brings impact lawsuits in state and federal courts throughout the country, taking on cases designed to have a significant and wide-reaching effect on communities of color. In coalition with ACLU affiliates in each state, other civil rights groups, and local advocates, we lobby in local and state legislatures and support grassroots movements. Throughout these efforts, we strive to educate and empower the public on a variety of issues.


From unequal learning opportunities to an over-reliance on school-based police officers to enforce schools' harsh zero-tolerance policies, many students, overwhelmingly students of color, face very adult consequences for adolescent mistakes. The ACLU's education work centers on a disturbing trend called the "School-to-Prison Pipeline," a set of policies in our nation's public schools that push an alarming number of kids into the juvenile and criminal justice systems when they most need support from their schools and communities. The ACLU Racial Justice Program challenges racial discrimination, disproportionate discipline, segregation, and criminalization of children of color in schools across the country. In recent years, the ACLU has also begun to challenge the privatization of public schools through voucher systems that have left many students – in particular, students of color and students with disabilities – behind in underfunded public schools.

Racial Profiling

Despite claims that the United States has entered a "post-racial era," the targeting of people of color for detentions, interrogations, and searches by law enforcement based on perceived race, ethnicity, national origin or religion remains a deep-seated and pervasive problem across the country. Racial profiling violates the Constitution's core promise of equal protection of the law, treating people differently because of the color of their skin, they language they speak, or the faith they practice rather than reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. It alienates communities and reduces the trust necessary for effect law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels. The ACLU Racial Justice Program exposes and challenges racially-biased law enforcement practices, including the racial profiling of air passengers by airlines and federal officials and discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices by police, through public education, advocacy, and litigation.

Economic Justice

For much of the country's history, formal and explicit racial restrictions prevented people of color from accessing the mainstays of economic life – such as employment and homeownership – based on race. Though such explicit racial classifications were outlawed by the civil rights statutes passed in the 1960s, yawning disparities in wealth, income, and other economic opportunities remain, preventing us from achieving true racial justice in America. These racially disparate outcomes reflect a combination of covert discrimination, structural inequality, and implicit biases, and they have become more severe in the continuing aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008. Focusing especially on issues relating to credit and homeownership, the ACLU uses litigation and other advocacy to remedy deeply entrenched sources of inequality and ensure that access to opportunity is not allocated according to race. Because, as Dr. King put it, "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't have enough money to buy a hamburger?"

Debtors' Prisons

Nearly two centuries ago, the United States formally abolished the use of incarceration to punish people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, recent years have witnessed the rise of modern-day debtors' prisons—the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay court fines, costs and fees they can never hope to afford, through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights. Illegal criminal justice debt collection practices have a devastating impact on communities of color due to the combined effect of racial profiling by law enforcement and the racial wealth gap. The ACLU and ACLU affiliates are working to end once and for all the unconstitutional jailing of people too poor to pay criminal justice debts and other abusive practices.

American Indian Rights

Indian tribes have suffered discrimination and injustice at the hands of the government since the country's founding, and our government's heinous treatment of Indian tribes over the last several centuries reverberates to the present. But contemporary civil rights discussions all too often ignore the rights of Indian tribes and their members. Indian communities are among the most impoverished in the nation, and the stigma of past discrimination regularly rears its head in the spheres of public health, education and juvenile justice. The ACLU is committed to defending the rights of Indians and tribes to be free from discrimination and from governmental abuse of power, whether the government be federal, state, or tribal. The ACLU has filed important class action lawsuits challenging discrimination against Indian families in education, voting, and the child welfare system. In recent years, the ACLU has used the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to challenge pervasive discrimination and the lack of due process afforded to Indian families in emergency child custody proceedings.

In The News

New Report Shows Lender Abuses and Feeble Enforcement Cause Minority Homeowners to Lose Homes (2015)
ACLU Challenges Abusive Debt Collection Practices That Target the Poor (2015)
For-Profit Companies Are Helping to Put People In Jail for Being Poor. I Should Know, I Was One of Them (2015 Blog)
ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society Challenge Delaware's Segregated Charter Schools (2014)
Black and Blue: The All-Too-Often Toxic Relationship Between Communities of Color and Law Enforcement (2014 Blog)
Movement for Racial Justice Runs Wide and Deep (2014 Blog)
FTC Needs to Make Sure Companies Aren’t Using Big Data to Discriminate (2014 Blog)
Boston Police Have a Racially Biased Policing Problem, and a Golden Opportunity to Reform (2014 Blog)
A Taxicab Confession for a Post-Ferguson America (2014 Blog)
Ferguson is Everytown, U.S.A. (2014 Blog)
After Ferguson, U.N. Calls on U.S. to Get Its Act Together on Race Discrimination (2014 Blog)
Ferguson Police's PR Stunt Poisons Independent and Impartial Investigation
Parents of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis Share Their Loss at the United Nations (2014 Blog)
U.N. to Confront United States on Persistent Racial Discrimination (2014 Blog)
What Raising Minimum Wage Means for Racial Justice (2014 Blog)
How Racial Bias Corrupts Juries (2014)
Time for the Feds to Step In: Illegal and Abusive Debt Collection Threatens to Exacerbate Racial Inequality (2014)
What Does It Take To Truly Be "My Brother's Keeper" (2014)
When Big Data Becomes a Civil Rights Problem (2014)
Court-Sanctioned Extortion by Private Probation Companies: Modern Debtors' Prisons (2014)
An Unequal Playing Field: A Response To Richard Sherman's Post Super Bowl Playoff Game "Outburst" (2014)

Additional Resources

Here We Go Again: Communities of Color, the Foreclosure Crisis, and Loan Servicing Failures (2015)
Black, Brown and Targeted: A Report on Boston Police Department Street Encounters from 2007-2010 (2014 Report)
American Civil Liberties Union Shadow Report to the 3rd-5th Periodic Reports of the United States (2014 Report)
Justice Foreclosed: How Wall Street's Appetite for Subprime Mortgages Ended Up Hurting Black and Latino Communities (2012 Report)
Unshared Bounty: How Structural Racism Contributes to the Creation and Persistence of Food Deserts (2012 Report)
Arrested Futures: The Criminalization of School Discipline in Massachusetts' Three Largest School Districts (2012 Report)
Faces of Failing Public Defense Systems: Portraits of Michigan's Constitutional Crisis (2011 Report)
Promoting Opportunity and Equality in America: A Guide to Federal Circuit Authority on Permissible Government Actions to Promote Racial and Gender Equality (2010 Resource)
In for a Penny: the Rise of America's New Debtor's Prisons (2010 Report)

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