Linda Chavez

They wouldn't seem to have much in common, the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington and Miley Cyrus' disgraceful performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, but both show how culture trumps law in influencing our lives.

For those of us old enough to remember life before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the dream was that if we could outlaw discrimination on the basis of race and sex, the lives of blacks and women would be improved dramatically. And they were -- up to a point. As President Obama noted in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, "To dismiss the magnitude of this progress -- to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed -- that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years."

The change the president referred to is real and significant. At the time that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech in 1963, 22 percent of blacks in the Deep South were registered to vote and only five blacks held congressional office. Today, blacks vote in higher numbers than whites nationally (66 percent versus 64 percent of whites in the 2012 election), and there are more than 10,500 black elected officials nationwide, including more than 300 in legislatures south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Similar progress has occurred in education, employment and housing. Legal barriers to achieving the American dream have been lifted thanks to the passage of laws making it illegal to judge individuals by the color of their skin.

And the same is true for women. Young people today may not realize it, but in 1963 (prior to the implementation of the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act), employers could bar women from certain jobs and pay them less for doing identical work. Universities could -- and did -- exclude or limit the number of women in certain fields. If a female teacher became pregnant, many school districts forced her to leave her job before what we now endearingly call the baby bump appeared.

But equal legal rights did not mean life became better and safer, much less elevated, for many blacks and women. And here is where culture stepped in to tarnish the dream.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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