The Erosion of Rights

Declining Civil Rights Enforcement Under the Bush Administration

    Read the full report (PDF)

    The erosion of civil rights across our nation over the past six years is the result of willful neglect and calculated de­sign. The Bush administration continues to use the courts and the judicial appointment process to narrow civil rights protections and repeal remedies for legal redress while allowing the traditional tools of the executive branch for civil rights enforcement to wither and die. The resulting inequality of opportunity, deteriorating civil liberties, and rising religious and racial discrimination are sad commen­taries on the priorities of the current administration.

    This new report by the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights and the Center For American Progress catalogues why this is happening and how Congress can take action to remedy the situation. The 10 essays in this report encapsu­late the administration’s failure to enforce civil rights, pro­tect civil liberties and confront long-standing and emerging threats to our nation’s shining virtue: equality of opportu­nity. The authors of the report, many of them veterans of civil rights enforcement and advocacy, detail the methods employed by the administration to carry out these serious civil rights policy reversals and offer concrete solutions to slow the deterioration of our nation’s civil rights and restore our promise as the land of equal opportunity.

    The first section of the report, written by five former se­nior officials in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, reveals exactly how civil rights enforcement by the executive branch has fallen in to a dangerous state of disrepair—on the eve of the division’s historic 50-year anniversary. Joseph Rich, 38-year veteran of the division until his retirement in 2005, exposes the attacks upon the professionalism of the division by political appoin­tees amid pointed lack of oversight by Congress into these transgressions.

    Seth Rosenthal, a 10-year veteran of the division, then ex­amines the shift in emphasis away from classic civil rights enforcement toward action against “human trafficking,” a laudable goal, but one previously tackled by other divi­sions within the Justice Department.

    Richard Ugelow, who retired from the Civil Rights Divi­sion four years ago, explains how civil rights action against discrimination in employment practices in the private sector and in local and state governments focuses today on “reverse discrimination” rather than clear patterns and practices of discrimination against African Americans and other racial minorities. Similarly, Joseph Rich and two of his former Civil Rights Division colleagues, Robert Ken­gle and Mark Posner, examine how the Bush administra­tion has allowed “partisan political concerns to influence its decision-making” on enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which cuts to the core of our democratic principles and is so critical to equality in our country.

    To correct these miscarriages of civil rights enforcement, the report recommends that Congress establish a Select Committee of the House and Senate for civil rights. The new Select Committee would:

    • Review the implementation of federal civil rights laws.
    • Conduct oversight hearings and investigations into the enforcement of civil rights laws.
    • Implement any needed changes to ensure better civil rights enforcement.

    In addition, the report calls for Congress to enact a key change to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002: enable people to bring civil suits in federal courts to redress violations of their civil rights. Only then can citizens count on the Justice Department and the courts to act to protect civil rights.

    Fixing what ails the Civil Rights Division is an impor­tant step that must be taken, but disarray and desuetude at the Department of Justice is not the only reason the administration has failed to protect our civil rights. Elliott Mincberg and Judith Schaeffer, the former legal director and associate legal director for the People for the American Way, and Adam Shah at Media Matters for America, examine the administration’s success at appointing conservative “activist” judges to the Supreme Court and lower courts—with the express aim of legislat­ing conservative dogma from the bench.

    The remedy? The president and the Senate must ensure that all judicial nominees to the federal bench have a dem­onstrated commitment to equal justice under law. With­out judges fully committed to civil rights and liberties our nation risks losing its distinctive character as a country that offers opportunity to all and protects all against the excesses of the powerful.

    These same characteristics of the American way of life are in jeopardy in other legal arenas. Shaheena Ahmad Simons, formerly of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund says the struggle for immigration reform in our country is complicated by the gap between those conservatives who want draconian enforcement of U.S. deportation laws and those who want cheap immi­grant labor. The upshot, says Simons, has been no reform at all. The goal of reform should be a positive one: the enactment of a defined path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in our society.

    Simon’s colleague at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, regional counsel Peter Zamora, tack­les the shortcomings of states, local agencies and the feder­al government in implementing the guarantees of the No Child Left Behind Act that English language learners will be fully included in educational opportunities. By 2025, Zamora notes, 25 percent of the U.S. school population will be English language learners. The Bush administra­tion and Congress must act now to fully enforce NCLB provisions to ensure our schools provide these students with the best opportunities to learn.

    In communications policy, too, the administration’s lack of civil rights enforcement and failure to offer equal opportu­nity access to new communications technologies leaves mi­norities under-represented in the communications industry and ill-served by its services. Mark Lloyd, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and expert on com­munications policies, notes that executive branch regulatory agencies have stymied past progress on affirmative employ­ment and minority ownership in communications indus­tries. Lloyd also examines how policymakers are not seeking to bridge the so called “digital divide” by offering Internet and computer access to all Americans.

    His solutions are forthright: The Federal Communica­tions Commission must enact race-conscious measures to advance equal employment opportunity and increase minority ownership in the communications industry. And the government must support the widespread provision of communications access points all across the country: in rural areas and the inner city, on Indian land and in hospi­tals, libraries and schools in every community.

    Equal opportunity in housing, which is examined in the last chapter of our report, is perhaps the most important civil rights arena in that it determines access to educa­tion, jobs, and other crucial services. Yet, it poses the most formidable barriers to equality. Philip Tegeler, Executive Director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, explains why equal opportunity housing programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Treasury are not helping families move from higher-poverty segregated neighborhoods to less segregated areas.

    Tegeler notes that all the legal and policy provisions to make these programs effective reside in the hands of ex­ecutive branch officials at these two agencies. They must only be employed to help low-income families enjoy the housing mobility that middle- and higher-income fami­lies take for granted in America. He recommends that Public Housing Authorities cooperate across jurisdic­tions and embrace new housing mobility programs, and that the Treasury department and the Internal Revenue Service actively support fair housing programs and use the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program to encour­age housing mobility.

    The terrorist attacks of 9/11 in many ways distracted the nation from determination to improve and enforce exist­ing civil rights laws. In this new environment the Bush ad­ministration has taken regressive steps that undermine our civil liberties, our civil rights and our expectations of equal opportunity. The detailed analysis that follows—alongside the specific recommendations to cope with the erosion of our civil rights over the past six years—provides Congress and the American people with a roadmap to help us reclaim the promise of equal opportunity for all.