Ellen Berrey

Ellen Berrey

Rights on Trial: How Employment Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality

Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto

Rights on Trial is a landmark book about the relationship between employment civil rights litigation and inequality in the American workplace. The book argues that despite an apparently widely shared commitment to the ideal of a discrimination-free workplace and the rights of targets of discrimination to seek redress, employment civil rights litigation actually perpetuates workplace inequality rather than ameliorating it. The dispute process:

  • Imposes heavy personal costs on plaintiffs
  • Insulates the workplace from information about settlements
  • Provides no or limited awards to most plaintiffs, and
  • Reinforces stereotypes about protected categories of workers — a process the authors call ‘reinscription.’


Rights on Trial goes beyond an illustration of ‘why the haves come out ahead’ in this arena to demonstrate how the law contributes to workplace inequality by reinforcing managerial authority and workplace hierarchies of race, gender, age, and disability. Combining an original quantitative data set of a large random sample of federal case filings over the last four decades, the universe of EEOC complaints in that time, and more than one hundred qualitative in-depth interviews with plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ lawyers, defendants, and defense lawyers in a systematically selected subsample of cases, the book offers a comprehensive and critical assessment of the dynamics of employment civil rights litigation.


Ellen Berrey is Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Toronto and an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation. Her research examines the crossroads of culture, racism, law, organizations, social movements, and inequality in the United States and, increasingly, Canada. Dr. Berrey is the author of two award-winning books: The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press 2015), which was the recipient of the prestigious Herbert Jacob Book Prize of the Law & Society Association, and, with Robert Nelson and Laura Beth Nielsen, Rights on Trial: How Workplace Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality (University of Chicago Press 2017). Her current research projects investigate anti-racism student protest and university and police responses, universities’ management of campus hate speech, and political movements motivated by conspiracy theory. Her Salon article, “Diversity Is for White People,” has been circulated on social media more that 33,000 times.