Center for American Progress

Making Equal Opportunity a Reality in the 21st Century

Making Equal Opportunity a Reality in the 21st Century

How to Combat the Bush Administration’s Damage to Civil Rights

Civil rights experts suggest ways to repair the damage the Bush administration has done to civil rights in America.

Pictured, from left to right: Joseph Rich, Peter Zamora, Mark Lloyd, Bill Taylor, and Cassandra Butts.

There has been an “assault by the Bush administration” on civil rights enforcement, Bill Taylor, President of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, said at a panel discussion held Wednesday at the Center for American Progress.

The discussion accompanied the release of “The Erosion of Rights,” a report by the CCCR and CAP detailing how the Bush administration has failed to enforce Americans’ civil rights and protect their civil liberties. The report features 10 essays by civil rights experts and outlines the Bush administration’s reversals on civil rights policies and what we can do to repair the damage these reversals have wrought on America’s promise of equal opportunity for all.

Four experts with papers included in the report sat on the panel, including Taylor; Mark Lloyd, a Senior Fellow at CAP; Peter Zamora, Regional Counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and Joseph Rich, who retired in 2005 from the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Cassandra Butts, Senior Vice President for Domestic Policy at CAP, moderated the event.

The panelists’ message was clear: the Bush administration’s policies over the past six years have taken us further away from ensuring equal opportunity for all.

Civil rights enforcement has declined during the Bush years. Taylor said the “serious crisis” in civil rights has been brought on by the Bush administration “run[ning] roughshod” over career civil rights lawyers, rejecting their advice and “playing politics” with important civil rights issues such as voting rights. Rich, who spent 36 years at Justice—24 of those under Republican administrations—said the attack on professionalism occurring during the Bush presidency has been “unprecedented.” He cited in particular the intrusion of partisan politics into decision-making.

The weakened force of civil rights litigators has led to a decline in civil rights enforcement. Rich noted that the Justice Department has significantly decreased the number of cases it has brought forward on the behalf of African Americans during the Bush years. The department has shifted its focus to “reverse discrimination” civil rights cases rather than confront clear patterns and practices of discrimination against African Americans and other minorities.

This shift in focus has also led to changes in regulations that are hurting media diversity. Lloyd explained that recent changes in data collection practices have led to greater inequality of opportunity in the media and communications industries in particular. Federal courts struck down an FCC regulation in 1998 that required stations to keep track of the numbers of minority employees on their staffs and conduct outreach to minority groups to let them know of job opportunities. Since that ruling, Lloyd said, the number of minorities employed in the news media has declined significantly.

The same laissez-faire attitude to civil rights is also infiltrating the public school system. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act was meant to ensure, among other things, that English language learners be fully included in educational opportunities. Yet Zamora told attendees that the federal government has fallen short in implementing these guarantees. A driving principle of NCLB is that sound data on student achievement can spur education reform that will improve all students’ outcomes. Yet the Department of Education’s poor implementation and enforcement of NCLB has led to inadequate data collection for English language learner students. School systems have therefore been unable to implement reforms that could help these students reach a level playing field with their native-speaking peers.

The erosion of civil rights under the Bush administration has touched all facets of American life. Yet “The Erosion of Rights” argues that we can regain lost ground with stricter oversight and enforcement.

Panelists emphasized the viability of the report’s key recommendations, including establishing a Select Committee of the House and Senate for civil rights that would review the implementation of federal civil rights laws, conduct oversight of civil rights enforcement, and implement changes necessary to ensure civil rights violations are addressed.

They also suggested that Congress make a key change to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the No Child Left Behind Act to enable people to bring civil suits in federal courts to address civil rights claims. Continuing on the country’s current course—toward weaker civil rights enforcement and away from equality of opportunity—is not an option we can afford.

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