The Supreme Court has raised the burden of proof for plaintiffs claiming that they are victims of racial discrimination.
In a unanimous decision, the high court opted Monday to send a case back to the 9th Circuit to “reconsider” its ruling on whether a black businessman has standing to sue Comcast for racial bias, Reuters reported. The decision, in the case Comcast v. National Association of African American-Owned Media, marks a blow to the more loose definitions of racial bias that have come to populate both popular and legal culture in recent years.
Entrepreneur sues Comcast
According to Reuters, the $20 billion lawsuit centers on allegations from Byron Allen, a black entrepreneur who claims that Comcast refused to give a contract to his company, Entertainment Studios, because of racism. He filed his lawsuit under a statute on the books, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which bans racial prejudice in contracts.
Comcast argues that it refused to deal with Allen purely for business reasons.
At the heart of the controversy is whether racial bias should be considered the sole factor or just a “motivating factor” among several in deciding that a racial bias case can move forward, The Hollywood Reporter noted. The Supreme Court held to a strong standard, echoing Comcast’s arguments that a plaintiff must prove at the outset that race is the only factor in a racial discrimination case.
“To prevail, a plaintiff must initially plead and ultimately prove that, but for race, it would not have suffered,” conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch explained, according to Reuters.
But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, siding with Allen, argued last year that race need only be one element for a case to move ahead. A district court had previously sided with Comcast. Now, the case will return to the sprawling 9th Circuit.
“This is a very bad day for our country,” Allen said in a statement following the high court’s decision, according to Reuters. “We will continue our fight by going to Congress and the presidential candidates to revise the statute to overcome this decision by the United States Supreme Court.”
A spokeswoman for Comcast said the company is “proud of our record on diversity and will not rest on this record,” Reuters reported.
Blow to civil rights?
In recent years, the burden of proof for proving racism — at least in the court of public opinion — has relaxed significantly. Buzzwords like “unconscious bias” have popularized the idea that racism is omnipresent, and that suspicions of racism are therefore an acceptable substitute for proof.
Conservatives who balk at a rise in dubious charges of racism both in the courts and outside them will surely hail the Supreme Court’s decision in this case. An author at the right-leaning outlet the Washington Examiner said that the ruling was a victory for common sense, arguing that the Supreme Court was simply acknowledging that racial bias claims require a scintilla of evidence.
Civil rights advocates argue, however, that the decision raises the burden of proof for plaintiffs to an unfair standard. In a typical response, the left-wing media outlet Vox fretted that the decision “bodes ill for the future of civil rights.” Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, also decried the decision as a defeat for civil rights.
“No doubt, this ruling may shut the courthouse door on some discrimination victims who, at the complaint stage, may simply be without the full range of evidence needed to meet the court’s tougher standard,” Clarke said, according to Reuters.
Evidence of racism is needed to prove racism? Who would have thought?