Constitution Day- Celebrating The Fourteenth Amendment

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“Do you speak a lot?” asked Shireen (not the students real name), my apprehensive fourteen-year-old client while I worked at CAIR-Los Angeles as the Civil Rights Department Manager. Shireen had experienced an incident at her high school where a boy had allegedly pulled her headscarf, telling her “we don’t want terrorists at our school.” Having arrived from Syria, Shireen had had a difficult time adjusting to life at a public co-ed high school. In Syria her strong faith and academic drive defined her day-to-day life; in her American high school she faced a teacher who referred to her as a “terrorist who needed deprogramming” and “Bin Laden’s daughter”. I didn’t want my voice to give her the impression that I was just as anxious so I nodded “yes” in response to her question. We sat in front of a large audience at the mosque for an event on school bullying where both us were about to address the crowd. I had just placed a copy of a brochure when she reached out to grab it.

Shireen knows the answer, but asks anyway: “You printed my brochure on bullying?”

She smiled as she flipped through it. When I met Shireen three years ago, she felt vulnerable, hopeless and was having a difficult time understanding the new culture she found herself in. Shireen was out of place then, but as I glanced over at her now, I noticed how her appearance had changed; she wore a stylized headscarf, designer clothes, carried an expensive handbag and a lot of accessories. Her attitude was different as well: she exuded confidence, had a sense of determination and in her dress and attitude expressed her Arab, immigrant and American experiences into an identity.

I am sharing this personal story from my experience with CAIR LA because today is Constitution Day, its when we celebrate the enactment of the United States Constitution on September 17, 17987. My time at CAIR has taught me that one of the most important Amendment we have today is the Fourteenth Amendment. Diversity is a major strength the United States has compared to other nations around the world, its also our most critical weakness if we can’t manage it.

Diversity isn’t just having a bunch of people of different races, in fact, one of the primary points of diversity exists within a homogenous group- age. Diversity is differences among people in age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and capabilities/disabilities. In management- the little gears in the engine the drives America- one of the biggest challenges is how to handle diverse workforce: not breaking the law and utilizing the strengths of employees from all backgrounds. One company that embraces and embodies this attitude is the Union Bank of California. Takahiro Moriguchi, while CEO of Union, said that

“by searching for talent from among the disabled, both genders, veterans, gay, all ethnic groups and all nationalities, we gain access to a pool of ideas, energy, and creativity as wide and varied as the human race itself.”

Which also means that you have a wide base of potential customers. So when Shireen goes out to get a job, she will likely face discriminatory practices. She will either find a company that embraces her differences like Union Bank, or she will have the unfortunate circumstances of being employed by a company that degrades her and in the process breaks the law (which could be fortunate, because she might win a large settlement against her discrimination claim).

No one intends to work for a place that will abuse them, just like no customer walks into a store to be treated like shit because they are of a particular race, have certain capability restrictions or life choices. I mean who wants to go in to a store and only see white athletically fit, blond and blue eyed employees, it sounds Nazi-esque. But its actually Abercrombie & Fitch‘s policy- “No Muslims need apply” here (wait, not just once, twice, here), “fat people need not shop” here, “Only white people work” here and “we only hire fully capable people” to work here– you would think they’d learn that “Two Wongs Can[‘t] Make It White” but the company just hasn’t learned, and yes, they discriminate based on age too, soon enough their will be a age-based-discrimination lawsuit.

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All that brings me to my favorite part of the Constitution: The Fourteenth Amendment states:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

One of the more important aspects, the one that applies to Shireen’s case is what is known as “The Equal Protection Clause” which states: “nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Across the country, there are children in public schools who through small, and large, indignities, are prevented from having a safe and equitable learning environment. Its not that there is a lack of laws on the books to ensure that they get equal access and treatment, or safety and security. The truth is that there is a gap between how those rules are applied, due to parents not being empowered by knowledge of their existence; and the way that the public school officials, from administrators to superintendents to teachers and aids within the school fully comprehend and apply these laws. There is a lack of culture and that allows for students like Shireen to be pushed to the margins.

Shireen’s experience at school is one of countless stories across the United States that play out in our public schools, places of work, recreational areas and commercial spaces. These challenges are brought about by globalization. As the process of the world becoming more connected has proceeded, greater diversity has brought about changes to the United States over the past three decades. American society is confronted by the tension of managing rights with societal norms that are being influenced by new immigrant populations and changes in attitudes towards a lot of “norms.” There is a historical precedence that exists in the United States which is important to understand when exploring how society, the law and increased diversity play out. There are statues that protect the equality of all Americans in all of these spaces; these statues draw on the Equal Protection clause, which is part of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The equal protection clause makes the Fourteenth Amendment one of the most important Amendments today. Because the clause limits the ability of states to discriminate against people based on their race, national origin, gender, or other status it provides for a mechanism by which the United States can manage its diversity effectively. There are several areas where the clause has impacted the national psyche and challenged the social status quo, among them it includes the guaranteeing of voting rights, school integration, the rights of women and minorities to equal employment opportunities and the rights of immigrants to attend public school. (Also includes VOTING!)

Diversity in the United States has meant that there are greater dissimilarities among the citizens that make up the nation in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, education, physical appearance, capabilities/disabilities to name a few. This has resulted in the need for people to interact with people outside the norms they are familiar with. This point of interaction has created the legal and ethical issues as well as raise the debate of social responsibility- what can the government do to provide equality?

Equal protection of the laws under the fourteenth amendment continues to play a critical role in how we manage diversity today- it applies to our business environment, public school, all levels of government and our public spaces. It is the Equal Protection Clause that allows Governor Brown of California to sign into law pioneering protections for transgender children in public schools. Furthermore, for parents, like Shireen’s, state and federal legislation allows them to seek out protection for children being bullied at school. Granted we continue to face significant challenges in ascertaining what equality means and what the government can do to create it, or to prevent inequality. It is a debate that continues today and one in which all branches of government have participated in. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and in particular the Fourteenth Amendment offer us the vocabulary with which to carry on the debate, as well as a process by which we can amicably seek out solutions to manage the growing diversity we experience in the United States today.

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