LETTER: Rep Fiorello, Enacting Civil Rights Laws is the Proper Role of Government

Submitted by Nerlyn Pierson (Indivisible Greenwich) and Michelle Abt (Indivisible Stamford)

It is shocking that in 2021 one needs to explain to an elected official representing Greenwich and Stamford what civil rights laws are, their history and all they have accomplished. But it seems that all this would be news to Representative Kim Fiorello.

In a recent legislative hearing, Rep. Fiorello questioned whether civil rights legislation “is the proper role of government” because “we will always have disparities” and that in any event she doesn’t “know how [legislation] prevents the emergence or persistence of discrimination and disparities.”

If she had meant that laws alone were not the complete solution, that might be one thing. But her point as another – that we do not need civil rights legislation: “That is the state of the world. Nothing is equal. I find this kind of language in many, many bills coming before this body very problematic. Bills can’t do this. It’s not possible. This aspiration is misguided. It’s something we can speak about, but I don’t know how you legislate equality, equity and expect the laws to do all this.”

These views and assertions demonstrate a stunning ignorance of our nation’s history and the role of civil rights legislation in our progress as a nation. A brief explanation of the purpose and some of the accomplishments of civil rights legislation might be helpful to Rep. Fiorello.

Rep. Fiorello, civil rights laws are designed to protect and assure the basic human rights that our nation cherishes — things such as fair and equal treatment under the law and freedom from discrimination based on certain protected characteristics such as race, skin color, age and sex.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, is considered the most important and impactful piece of such legislation in our history. Among other things, it ended the segregation of races in public places, and banned employment and housing discrimination on the basis of race, skin color and religion. As a result of that legislation alone, for example, restaurants and other business owners can no longer deny service to Black or Brown Americans.

Similarly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had an immediate impact on the number of Black voters who were able to register to vote in the South. It outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states including literacy tests and poll taxes. By the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new Black voters had been registered and by the end of 1966, only 4 out of the 13 southern states had fewer than 50 percent of African Americans registered to vote.

At bottom, civil rights laws are critical to preserving our democratic ideals. Without these laws, many of the social norms we take for granted — that people can sit wherever they want on a bus, drink from any water fountain they wish, go to the school of their choice, or marry the person they wish to — would be in jeopardy. So, when you say you are “not sure” that enacting civil rights laws “is the proper role of government,” Rep. Fiorello, we would say that we are concerned that you do not have the basic understanding of our laws to be holding public office.

Indivisible Greenwich, Nerlyn Pierson
Indivisible Stamford, Michelle Abt