Report blasts civil rights enforcement under Bush
Federal enforcement of civil rights has eroded over the past six years due to “willful neglect and calculated design” by the Bush administration, according to a recent report released by two Washington think tanks.
The report, which was issued by the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights and the Center for American Progress, focuses much of its criticism on the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, long the federal government’s instrument for enforcing civil rights laws.
The division was created in 1957 by President Eisenhower as a response to the growing national civil rights movement. It is charged with enforcing laws in areas such as voting, education, employment and housing.
Now, on the eve of the its 50th anniversary, the report says that the Civil Rights Division has “fallen into a dangerous state of disrepair.”
The report’s most damning indictments of the division are written by five of its former employees, most notably Joe Rich, a 38-year veteran of the office who headed its voting division from 1999 to 2005.
Rich charges that the Department of Justice’s hiring practices are now dictated by politics, rather than professionalism. The result, he says, is the replacement of dedicated civil servants by partisan appointees with no civil rights experience.
That charge of blatant partisanship in the Department of Justice resonates with the current scandal enveloping Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is accused of firing eight U.S. attorneys to further the Bush administration’s political goals.
Another essay by a former Justice employee charges that the division has shifted its priorities away from traditional civil rights enforcement and toward issues that were previously handled elsewhere, such as human trafficking.
In the area of employment, the report claims that the division is pursuing fewer cases in which the complainants are African Americans “while devoting more resources to ‘reverse discrimination’ cases where the complainants are white.”
In voting, the report charges that the Bush administration has intentionally misused the division’s mandate to further Republican Party aims, and has “effectively ignored” the division’s longstanding priority of combating voting discrimination against African Americans.
“I’ve seen the Civil Rights Division since it was established in 1957, and it’s had some bad days and some good days, but I am convinced that nothing compares to the damage done to it under this administration.” said Bill Taylor, a lead author of the report who began his career as a lawyer on Thurgood Marshall’s staff in 1954.
“They’ve taken [the division] away from the professionals and politicized it completely,” Taylor said.
As a solution, the report calls for Congress to establish a Select Committee of the House and Senate that would conduct oversight hearings and investigations into the enforcement of civil rights laws.
Taylor is hopeful that the new Democratic Congress will be able to reign in the Department of Justice.
“Nobody paid attention to the Democrats when they raised questions in the minority. Now some greater attention will be paid if they use oversight powers, issue a subpoena on occasion, and set the stage for revitalizing the Civil Rights Division,” Taylor said.
Leonard Alkins, the former president of the NAACP’s Boston branch who left office on Jan. 1, said that some of the federal trends expressed in the report are occurring on a local level as well.
“I have seen some of those issues reflected in the city of Boston, not necessarily always by Republican Party members but also from Democratic Party members such as the mayor of Boston and the school board. Many civil rights initiatives have been removed as a result of the mayor’s appointments of school officials,” Alkins said.
“Republican administrations in the governor’s office have eroded many years of civil rights initiatives put in place by [former Gov. Michael] Dukakis and his predecessors … I think that civil rights unfortunately is not on the front burner for many elected officials or administrative officials, especially in this state.”