By Luis Bravo
Luis Bravo is a rising freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.
Shortly after the Supreme Court’s epochal decision in favor of same-sex marriage, lines of couples hoping to become newlyweds flooded local county clerks' offices across the nation. While many were able to obtain a marriage license successfully, others, such as a couple in Hood County, Texas, were met with dismay as their request was denied.  Although their marriage license was later approved and similar non-compliant counties nationwide are now facing civil charges, incidents like these shed light on the underlying bias that propagates throughout the American bureaucracy.
In legal terms, a government is a set of laws and regulations exerted on a group of individuals.  Such an abstract concept, however, would be ineffective without citizens that enforce the established mandates of the government. Thus, the bureaucratic system exists. As the people behind the regulatory entity that seeks to provide order, it is with them that the true power of the government is vested in. Bureaucrats serve as the face of the government, shaping our interactions with our central authority at all levels. The outreach of bureaucratic workers is substantial, as they range from teachers to public officials. As public servants, they are tasked with implementing and enforcing laws equally and without prejudice.  However, like all humans, members of the bureaucracy are subject to act with predispositions. Laws are only as powerful as the individuals that enforce them; bias in bureaucrats can lead to unfair discrimination and institutional racism. This bias can be expressed both explicitly and implicitly.
The first manifestation of bias within the bureaucracy is explicit and most commonly results in the blatant disregard for an individual’s rights and liberties. Much like the same-sex couples that were denied their right to wed by county clerks, ethnic groups have often been denied the fundamental right to vote by poll workers. For example, for a vast majority of African American citizens, voting was not viable until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964. In spite of the fact that the Fifteenth Amendment extended suffrage to African American men, the xenophobic mentalities of bureaucrats led to coercion within voting establishments, effectively prohibiting African Americans from exerting their most vital right as citizens.  Even though insubordination by government bureaucrats to the nation’s laws is not as present as it was in the past, incidents like those of Hood County remind us that it is still a modern occurrence.
In contrast, the second manifestation of bias is implicit and by far subtler, usually resulting in the disproportionate application of laws and allocation of resources. Unlike the first type of bias that is clear and apparent because of direct actions taken by government employees, this form of bias is contingent on bureaucrats’ unwillingness to act. For most, these people are the bridge between the citizenry and the government, forwarding petitions, applications, and requests to government departments. And though rules are in place to diminish bureaucratic bias within agencies, thus making the decision process fairer, the ultimate decision to pursue matters, as well as the way in which they are addressed, is up to the employees themselves. The effects of implicit bureaucratic bias and its resulting discrimination are most notable in urban communities, where social classes are clearly divided by race and socioeconomic status because of the unequal distribution of fiscal resources.  And though the speed at which people of various racial backgrounds are granted access to the array of governmental assistance programs is fairly equal, the tone and treatment in response to an individual’s inquiry varies widely, with ethnic minorities suffering treatment that is inferior to that of their counterparts.  This form of bias proves to be especially malicious because of its rather deceptive nature. Although a paper trail serves as a record and attempts to place accountability on individual workers, for most bureaucratic decisions the written records are not an effective way to deem bias. Instead, they are no more than simple explanations, concealing the underlying motives for unfavorable decisions. 
Surely, minorities and individuals that stray from societal norms are inherently subject to the most poignant degree of institutional inequality. Though laws have attempted to correct decades of discrimination, correcting the mentalities of individual bureaucrats will be more taxing. Nevertheless, it is necessary to observe that our society has experienced significant progress in the sectors of civil liberties and rights. The aspiration for our government in the years to come is to build a system free of bigotry and discrimination. Until then, we can continue to create laws and rules within the system to foster fairness within the decision-making process, all in an effort to completely obliterate bureaucratic bias.
 Ura, Alexas. "Gay Couple Suing Hood County Gets Marriage License." The Texas Tribune. July 6, 2015. Accessed July 28, 2015. http://www.texastribune.org/2015/07/06/gay-couple-sues-hood-county-clerk-over-marriage-li/
 "What Is GOVERNMENT?" The Law Dictionary. Accessed July 28, 2015. http://thelawdictionary.org/government/.
 "Who Are the Bureaucrats?" American Government Online Textbook. 2015. Accessed July 28, 2015. http://www.ushistory.org/gov/8c.asp
 The Long Shadow Of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation And Suppression In America Today. 2015. Ebook. 1st ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. http://archive.fairvote.org/righttovote/PFAW-NAACP.pdf
 Hill, Richard. Separate and Unequal: Governmental Inequality in the Metropolis 68, no. 4 (1974): 1557-568. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1959941?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
 Einstein, Katherine L., and David M. Glick. Does Race Affect Access to Government Services?: An Experiment Exploring Street Level Bureaucrats and Access to Public Housing 1, no. 1. Accessed July 28, 2015. http://dornsife.usc.edu/assets/sites/741/docs/Panel_2a_paper4_EinsteinGlick_Does_Race_Affect_Access_to_Housing_SoCLASS_USC_2015.pdf
 Riley, Dennis D. "Bureaucracy and the Law." In Controlling the Federal Bureaucracy. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1987.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Christian Schnettelker
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.