twentieth century seen the triumph of the state or the individual in the United States? You may wish to consider the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 particularly. Does that piece of legislation contain group or individual rights? What problem is being addressed here and how is it being addressed?
American individualism' is a phrase that is often bandied about in the popular media. However, it is seldom given a coherent historical definition. Rampant individualism is often seen as a societal negative that is endemic to America, where finding one's self is seen as a form of excluding one's self from a larger responsibility to a community and to a nation. However, without a doubt, one of the movements in American history that was characterized by a sense of social responsibility to a people, a community, and to an American ideal of freedom was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's. Martin Luther King's final address proclaimed that although he might "get there" with his people, to the "mountaintop of equality," he would still find a sense of comfort knowing that his people would eventually achieve their desired role in the American Dream.
One might contend, however, that paradoxically, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, although it arose from this historical movement and coalesced into a sense of historical, collective responsibility, contained within its fabric a greater sense of individualism than any previously existing legislation. It was, on its surface, a piece of legislation primarily designed to protect the rights of individual African-Americans from the proponents of 'states rights' in the South. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was since amended in 1991, but its overall legally protective structure has remained unchanged. However, the ways it has been interpreted and used since its construction, both practically and philosophically, have undergone seismic shifts. These shifts highlight the conflicted status of what constitutes an individual and individualism within American culture and the American legal framework of states rights and individual rights.
Specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. This aspect of the Act defines itself as a bill that protects the rights of the individual, noting that it protects employee rights, at the expense of employer's rights (although this is not explicitly stated). The act states that the term "employee" means an individual employed by an employer. According to the act, an "employer" means a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has fifteen or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year. An "employer" can be an individual, but it can also be a collective. In contrast, an "employee" can only be an individual, according to the provisos of the act.
However, another curious feature about the act's defintion are the exceptions made regarding the term employee, stating that "that the term employee shall not include any person elected to public office in any State or political subdivision of any State by the qualified voters thereof, or any person chosen by such officer to be on such officer's personal staff, or an appointee on the policy making level or an immediate adviser with respect to the exercise of the constitutional or legal powers of the office. The exemption set forth in the preceding sentence shall not include employees subject to the civil service laws of a State government, governmental agency or political subdivision."
This means that members of Congress, employers of the State, or employers of any political subdivision of the state are free to discriminate, based upon their own political leanings. Furthermore, the definition of employer is stated specifically to exclude the government of the United States, as well as any Indian tribe within the American nation. (2000e, section 707b)
In other words, an Indian tribe can discriminate, based upon race, conferring certain rights to an individual simply because he or she is an Indian. The government of the United States can refuse to employ a member of another nation, due to that individual's ethnic origin. For instance, according to the American Constitution, no foreign born national, even if a naturalized citizen, can serve as president of the United States. Thus, even in the apparently individualistic code of this particular piece of civil rights legislation, which was designed to protect individuals as individuals, regardless of their race, gender, or ethnic origin, the assertion that the 20th century oversaw the triumph of the individual over the will of the state, is buffeted by assertions of state control. At very least it is tempered by the federal government's existence as a 'state,' the right of indivdiuals to elect their representatives, the right of Indian soverinity, and certain notions of 'American' identity that temper complete faith in individual rights.
Upon further analysis one might even counter that the very notion of protecting an individual's 'individual rights' under the gloss of their inclusion in a group shows the paradoxical nature of so-called American individualism. The Civil Rights Act was only achieved through collective and communal political action, and was reflective of a sense of group discrimination. The actions of the Civil Rights Movement mainly took the form of collective boycotts, enacting a collective econmic toll upon communities that were discriminatory, not simply individual actions in isolation, who were demanding protection. Although borders between states were done away with, collective identtiy was stressed. However, the form of collective identity suggested that a white college student from the North whom engaged in a sit-in at a discriminatory lunch counter in the South had more in common in terms of legal opinion with oppressed African-Americans in the region, than the white individuals of the state who refused to serve such African-Americans as they would white consumers. Individualism was not the only ideological currency of the movement, rather indivdiualism in terms of state and regional identification was disturbed and shifted.
Furthermore, the act was motivated by the tendency of many American individuals, personally and collectively, to make generalizations and to engage in discriminatory practices against other individuals on the basis of gender, racial, and ethnic origins. The federal state was forced to step in and collectively guard against the state-codified prejudices of individual and collective employers in particular regions of the country, for this reason. Also, in enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, certain exceptions had to be provided for, most notably allowing that indviduals who were members of religious organizations, for instance, must be allowed to discriminate, based upon the membership of their organization.
The individual right to a free exercise of faith is thus tempered as well by the First Amendment to the Bill of Right's allowance for free association between individuals of like religious, political, and ideological persuasions. Thus, a conservative synagogue is justified in excluding non-Jewish candidates based upon these candidates national origin -- for instance, a Reform Jewish rabbi whose claim to Jewish identity comes from his Jewish father and not his gentile mother, a religious claim only recognized by the American branch of Reform Judiasm and not other Jewish sects. Such a rabbi could not plead discrimination by a synagogue, based upon his co-religionists right to define their faith upon particular terms.
Also, though less obviously, a small owner of a business of less persons than specified in the act can discriminate, making a 'family business,' for instance, and hire only memebrs of his or her immediate family, although if he or she wished to expand, he or she could not extend this credo to a potentially larger establishment or franchise. Thus, the corner mom and pop pizza shop is free only hire members of their close knit Italian family in employee numbers less than fifteen, but Roy Kroc could not limit the extension of McDonald's franchises to only individuals who possessed his ethinic origins. These two examples reflect the delicate balancing of an individual's right to practice his or her religion freely, and to live within a family context freely, so long as it does not create a societal system of oppression and discrimination, as it did during the 'Jim Crow' era in the South.
Before, 'states rights' was a common trope held up by opponents to civil rights and civil rights legislation. The federal government was seen as violating the right of the states by stepping in to protect the rights of individuals in a racial minority. Only a strong federal 'state' could protect the rights of an individual in a smaller, atomized state, and only by the extension of federal control could the full protections of the Bill of Rights be conferred upon all residents of America, as well as the rights newly extended through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the acts enacted previously and subsequently to it, enable the individual in the minority to feel secure in his or her person.