With 38 million citizens, California is the most populated U.S. state. Latinos are its largest minority, followed by Asians and African Americans. These minorities, along with all Californians, are protected from workplace discrimination, harassment and retaliation by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. A brief look at the state’s racial history provides the background to this far-reaching legislation.
The story begins in 1848 when James Marshall, a carpenter, discovered gold in Northern California’s American River. Word soon spread and the California Gold Rush was born. Over the next seven years, hundreds of thousands of settlers, including minorities, relocated to California in search of fortune.
In 1850, California became the 31st state. Unlike its anti-discrimination stance of today, California’s early days were rife with racial inequities. The new state legislature stripped the native population of land claims, prohibited African Americans from homesteading public land and barred Chinese children from public school.
Over the next 100 years, California’s minority population continued to boom. From 1900 to 1930, roughly 10% of Mexico’s population migrated to California and other southwestern states. During World War II, 500,000 African Americans migrated to California to work in the state’s booming wartime economy. Through the war, Mexican and African American laborers replaced white workers who had gone off to fight. When the war ended, however, many of these laborers were dismissed. Those able to find employment were given menial, low-paying positions. Job discrimination against minorities was widespread.
In response, state lawmakers introduced the Fair Employment Practices Act in 1946. The bill was to ban employment discrimination based on race, religion, color or national origin. However, it was defeated at the polls. Undaunted, supporters continued to champion the act which passed in 1959. That same year, California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act also became law, entitling “all persons to full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services in all business establishments, including both private and public entities.”
Regardless, local governments had the power to restrict minorities from living in California communities. The state legislature, therefore, created the Rumford Fair Housing Act to ban unfair housing. The Rumford Act passed in 1963, to the outrage of the California Real Estate Association which supported restricted housing. The Association countered with Proposition 14 to nullify the Rumford Act and restore a landlord’s right to deny housing to anyone. Although Prop 14 was passed by California voters, the California Supreme Court later ruled it unconstitutional, thus restoring the Rumford Fair Housing Act.
In 1980, the Fair Employment Practices Act and Rumford Housing Act were combined and renamed the Fair Employment and Housing Act, banning employment and housing discrimination in California. The act also established a policing agency, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). To enforce the law, the DEFH was granted the power to investigate, mediate and prosecute discrimination complaints. Today, it is the largest civil rights agency in the country.
The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains the central antidiscrimination law in the country. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act is this state’s counterpart. All such laws stem from the premise that persons should be judged for their competence on the job and not by factors of race, religion and the many other characteristics deemed arbitrary and irrelevant to workplace qualification.