The civil rights dialogue in the United States has been transformed from empty rhetoric into productive discussion, according to the Honorable Stuart Ishimaru, acting chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Mr. Ishimaru, who spoke on September 24, 2009 as part of the Washington College of Law Dean’s Diversity Council Speaker Series, said he was fundamentally optimistic about the future of civil rights. Mr. Ishimaru described the progress made in developing and protecting civil rights in the United States, and discussed those areas he sees as the next frontiers for the EEOC.

According to Mr. Ishimaru, the rhetoric about civil rights has settled into a more “lawyerly tone” in Washington, and the fights from 15 and 20 years ago have evolved into something completely different. Now, he says, making progress seems almost easy. Reflecting on his career since the 1980s, Mr. Ishimaru explained that the presence of civil rights laws and frameworks have changed the country’s social mores. There is more of a willingness to hold respectful and considered debate. He cites the election of Barack Obama and the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court as powerful indicators of the changes that have taken place in the United States.

At the outset of Mr. Ishimaru’s career, the predominant view in the Reagan Administration was that the protections and rights arising out of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s had fulfilled their purpose and needed to be rolled back. Municipalities felt as though they had met the Acts’ requirements, and that the majority of issues had been resolved. As a member of the professional staff of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, Mr. Ishimaru heard people question the breadth of and need for civil rights laws.

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) coincided with a growing national awareness of the continuing need to protect civil rights, especially as sexuality and gender rights activists began to vocalize and organize. Nonetheless, the political will to address those issues was lacking. Mr. Ishimaru recalled finding a statement he had drafted for Deval Patrick, then Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, to read at congressional hearings in 1994. The statement included language that was deemed “too hot to handle” because it attempted to raise sexual orientation issues. The opposition tone, meanwhile, tried to “scare people” through inflammatory rhetoric.

Despite the progress made, the EEOC is not yet obsolete. According to Mr. Ishimaru, as many as 100,000 formal complaints of discrimination are received by the EEOC every year. “These include the types of blatant, in-your-face discrimination that people think doesn’t happen anymore,” he said. Still, integration in the workforce has been powerful. People find that perceived differences become less important when they get to know the person sitting next to them at work every day. Unfortunately, integration in education and housing has not been as successful as in employment. There are also other challenges over the horizon.

Discriminatory practices have become more sophisticated. In the future, Mr. Ishimaru predicts that exclusionary screening devices such as online credit checks, genetic testing, and criminal records checks will be used in ways that disproportionately impact certain communities. Questions will also arise about the efficacy and need for affirmative action. Businesses and universities will have to adapt the ways in which they determine need. Wealth may even become a consideration. Finally, in many municipalities across the nation, integration in employment is rolling back as large numbers of minorities age and retire. This is a worrying trend, which may portend that workforces are no longer reflective of the make-up of their communities and could result in the reintroduction of unfair screening practices.

The future of civil rights in the United States is secure but not without a conscious effort to prevent backsliding. In some ways, the United States is a victim of its own success. Protecting civil rights is no longer such a contentious issue that angry rhetoric drowns out honest debate. However, a conciliatory tone cannot be allowed to result in complacency, or the efforts of the past twenty years will erode with the ever-changing practices of the modern age and a graying workforce.