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Equal rights fight a labor of love for Mass. anti-bias chief

Talia Whyte
Equal rights fight a labor of love for Mass. anti-bias chief
As chairman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, Malcolm S. Medley leads a team of investigators, attorneys and others responsible for enforcing state and federal civil rights laws. (Photo: Talia Whyte)

Fighting for the rights of society’s marginalized members has been Malcolm S. Medley’s passion since he was a teenager.

As a 15-year-old black boy whose family had just come to the U.S. from Jamaica, Medley attended Boston’s schools in the aftermath of the heated fight over school desegregation. At Hyde Park High School in the early 1980s, Medley says he recalls being told by his guidance counselor that he couldn’t become a lawyer because of his race, and that he should consider other careers more suitable for black people.

“It became clear to me at that time that not everyone is racially sensitive,” Medley said. “But I didn’t let that deter me. I am one of those people that if you tell me I can’t do something, I will do it.”

A man of his word, Medley went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Northeastern University and a J.D. from Boston University School of Law. Later, he worked as a civil rights lawyer before accepting an appointment to become the chairman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).

As the head of the state’s chief civil rights agency, Medley leads investigators, fact-finders and attorneys tasked with enforcing state and federal civil rights laws.

Prior to his appointment to the position by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2007, Medley’s legal experience extended to appellate practice in federal and state appeals courts and administrative agencies — including, coincidentally, providing counsel to the Boston Public Schools in discrimination cases.

Medley also served as legal counsel to OneUnited Bank, the largest black-owned bank in the country. He said his experience working for the bank has contributed to the commission’s efforts to deal with the growing foreclosure crisis, which many analysts say has disproportionately affected communities of color.

“We acknowledge that race has been targeted by some banks,” Medley told the Banner. “MCAD and HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] are working together in a predatory lending issues group on how best to deal with the tremendous number of foreclosure cases.”

Of the nearly 4,000 formal complaints filled with the  MCAD annually, a large number are racial discrimination claims. While some have forwarded the notion that the election of President Barack Obama is proof that racism has run its course in America, Medley said the MCAD has seen an uptick in racial discrimination complaints in recent years.

Medley said the MCAD office recently received a call from someone questioning the need for such an agency to exist anymore. But despite the presence of African American leaders in both the White House and the State House, Medley said he doesn’t believe there is enough evidence yet that America is truly “post-racial.”

“I wish it were true that we were post-racial, but that statement makes no sense to me,” Medley said. “To [cite] an election of an African American to a high office as the sole [proof] for people overcoming racism makes no sense to me. There is still so much work left to be done.”

In fact, Medley said, America has a long way to go before it can honestly consider itself a post-civil-rights-era country. He said that until all people are considered equal — with no divisions based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and national origin — the U.S. can never be considered a wholly just society.

One increasingly contentious area, according to Medley, is disability-related discrimination, which has been the topic of a growing number of complaints made to the MCAD. Because the laws for protecting the disabled are so broad, it is difficult for employers to accommodate such employees before a complaint is made, he said, and these laws need to be revisited by his agency and other government officials.

There has not, however, been a sharp rise in formal complaints of discrimination against those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community since the legalization of same-sex marriage statewide in 2003, Medley said. Some gay rights advocates feared a backlash would follow the state Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the monumental case that made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to legally recognize same-sex marriages.

While there are still those who disagree with the court’s decision, Medley said that his agency must uphold laws set by the state regarding sexual orientation.

The MCAD is now studying the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act, which Medley said is not gender-equitable because the law doesn’t recognize changing family dynamics. While the law now supports some heterosexual and lesbian couples, because there is no paternity law, gay and straight fathers do not have the same opportunity as their female counterparts to take off the allotted eight weeks to care for their new children.

“We also have a working group on this, because we potentially see the current law as a problem waiting to happen,” Medley said.

The commission is also working to stay ahead of the curve on immigrant rights, recently announcing that it and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had reached a settlement with Michael Bianco Inc. Nine former employees of the New Bedford leather and textile manufacturer alleged that they had been discriminated against on the basis of their national origin.

The company gained national notoriety following the March 6, 2007, raid of its New Bedford factory by federal agents and other law enforcement officers, who charged the company’s executives with hiring illegal immigrants and employing them in substandard working conditions. Medley said the MCAD continues to watch immigrant discrimination in Barnstable County.

The settlement was just one of many landmark cases that Medley deals with on a regular basis. He said that’s all part of the job of making Massachusetts a more equitable place.

“I don’t know if we will ever accomplish equality in this country, but civil rights have come through struggle and enforcement,” he said. “Civil rights don’t just happen.”