Marjorie Cohn: Bush Gets 'F' in Civil Rights
Bush Gets 'F' in Civil Rights
By Marjorie Cohn
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Tuesday 19 October 2004
While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice, of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth ... We do not accept this, and we will not allow it ... And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity...
- President George W. Bush, Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 2001.
George W. Bush has betrayed this promise, according to a 180-page draft report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Redefining Rights in America - The Civil Rights Record of the George W. Bush Administration, 2001-2004.
Bush rarely uses the terms "civil rights," "diversity," or "discrimination." When he does, it's usually in reference to a historical celebration or holiday. "The dearth of substantive presidential statements reveals that civil rights is not a priority for this administration," according to the draft report.
Even when Bush does state a commitment to the protection of civil rights, his actions belie his rhetoric. The draft report "finds that President Bush has neither exhibited leadership on pressing civil rights issues, nor taken actions that matched his words." Bush "has not defined a clear agenda nor made civil rights a priority." The net increase in Bush's requests for civil rights enforcement agencies was "less than those of the previous two administrations."
It is not surprising that the Republicans on the Civil Rights Commission have resisted the release of the report until after the November election. They were rebuffed, however, in their attempt to remove the draft report from the website.
The draft report finds: "President Bush does not speak about civil rights initiatives often, but when he does he promotes the faith-based program more than any other. He has presented the initiative as an end to discrimination against religious organizations, using terms such as 'remove barriers,' 'equal access,' and 'equal treatment,' which convey that such programs have civil rights relevance. In reality, the program does not remove barriers to discrimination. On the contrary, it allows religious organizations that receive public funds to discriminate against individuals based on religion in employment."
Whereas the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and César Chávez with the United Farmworkers Union, used faith to sustain them, Bush uses it as a bludgeon. Bush's faith actually undermines the protection of civil rights. This agenda comes through loud and clear in the draft report: "The faith-based initiative, a so-called civil rights action, actually constitutes a retreat, not an advancement from employment discrimination," especially against gays and lesbians.
Instead of leading him to protect civil rights, Bush's faith has victimized the most vulnerable among us. In nearly every category of civil rights analyzed in the draft report, Bush receives a failing grade. His record is abysmal in education, fair housing, voting, gay and lesbian rights, affirmative action, environmental justice, racial profiling, protection of disadvantaged groups, and judicial nominations.
Equal Educational Opportunity
Bush frequently touts the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which he widely promoted, and which garnered bipartisan support. "Despite its worthy goals, however," the draft report says, "NCLB has flaws that will inhibit equal educational opportunity and limit its ability to close the achievement gap." For example, "NCLB does not sufficiently address unequal education, a major barrier to closing the achievement gap between minority and white students." Furthermore, Bush did not exhibit leadership to make sure NCLB was sufficiently funded, "leaving state and local school boards, teachers, and administrators without the resources to comply with the law."
"Policies instituted under the Bush administration have diminished housing opportunities for poor, disproportionately minority families," the draft report concludes.
In spite of the national angst over the 2000 presidential election process, and Bush's promise "to unite the nation and improve its election system, the President has failed to act swiftly toward election reform," finds the draft report. "As a result of the President's inaction, little will change before the 2004 elections, and the problems that linger, unless resolved, will most likely disenfranchise some eligible voters." Indeed, evidence has emerged that raises the specter of widespread violation of voter rights. (See truthout Voters Rights page.)
Christopher Edley, Jr., dean of Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley, and member of the Civil Rights Commission, documented voter suppression and disenfranchisement "approaching a torrent" in a recent article in Newsday. "The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, on which I sit," wrote Edley, "has heard many hours of testimony on these abuses, and civic groups are sounding alarms. Dismayingly, Attorney General John Ashcroft has not met the rising flood of examples with high-profile investigations and criminal indictments. Instead," noted Edley, "state and local officials face little more than embarrassment in the media."
Gay and Lesbian Rights
Although Bush appointed some gay rights supporters to Cabinet and administrative positions, he "has stated unequivocal support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. If passed," states the draft report, "the amendment would be the first in U.S. history to limit rather than preserve and expand the rights of a group."
The draft report concludes that Bush's "stance on affirmative action is equivocal at best ... He has not exhibited strong leadership on this issue where leadership is vital." While celebrating diversity, Bush's administration filed a brief with the Supreme Court opposing university policies that allow race to be considered as one factor to promote diversity in college admissions. "To speak about the importance of diversity without acknowledging the role of affirmative action or the need for comprehensive data is to disregard the remaining vestiges of discrimination," wrote the authors of the draft report.
Minority and low-income populations are disproportionately affected by environmental pollutants. Toxic waste dumps are frequently located in neighborhoods populated mostly by people of color. Yet, under the Bush administration, the Environmental Protection Agency "has taken few actions to ensure that minority and low-income persons are not disparately affected by environmental contamination and has failed to develop a standard for assessing how exposure to hazards affects public health," the draft report reads.
Early in his term, Bush promised to end racial profiling. He issued guidelines to prohibit racial profiling in federal law enforcement. However, after the September 11 attacks, Bush's attorney general rounded up immigrants of Arab, Muslim and South Asian descent. These men were not suspected of criminal activity, but were targeted solely on the basis of their national origin. "Many detainees alleged mistreatment by prison guards, including being hosed down with cold water, strip searched, forced to sleep upright in freezing conditions, denied food or legal representation, and kept in their cells for long periods."
The draft report examines three Bush administration proposals on immigration. "All lack strong civil rights protections for immigrants," it finds. "President Bush has endorsed policies that allow discrimination against certain groups in the processing of asylum applications," for example, Haitians.
"President Bush has acknowledged the great debt America owes to Native Americans. However, his words have not been matched with action." He has not requested sufficient funding for tribal colleges and universities, Native American health care, or housing programs. "In 2003," according to the draft report, "President Bush terminated funding for critical law enforcement programs, including the Tribal Drug Court Program. Experts agree that problems with the criminal justice system in Indian Country are serious and understated." Bush's "lack of commitment to the nation's trust responsibility to Native Americans ensures that their education, housing, and law enforcement conditions remain substandard."
"President Bush's record on women's issues is mixed. Economic gains for which he has paved the way are overshadowed by other actions that have set back women's rights." His administration launched a program to improve women's access to capital by creating a Web site and conferences, but abolished the Department of Labor's Equal Pay Initiative. Bush "attempted to redirect Title IX enforcement, but ceased his effort after overwhelming public expressions of support for the law." The draft report didn't mention that the Bush administration has resisted the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has been ratified by 177 countries, including more than 90 percent of the member states of the U.N.
"Many of his nominees and appointees do not support civil rights protections. The effect may be eventual weakening of civil rights law," according to the draft report. It cites objections from myriad civil rights organizations to several of Bush's nominees, "claiming that the administration is trying to pack the judiciary with anti-civil rights ideologues." (See my editorial, Bush's Judges: Right-Wing Ideologues.)
The Bush administration has implemented some programs to benefit the disabled, including an initiative to integrate disabled persons into the labor force, and proposed funding for it. The draft report finds that although it is "too soon to measure the ultimate impact of the administration's efforts, the disability rights community has embraced them."
Bush Betrayed His Promise of Justice and Opportunity
Bush has excluded civil rights leaders from policy discussions and refrained from soliciting input from anyone other than his own close circles, according to the draft report. When challenged on his civil rights record, Bush simply points to African-Americans Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and that ends the discussion.
"Under Attorney General Ashcroft, the Department of Justice's enforcement of civil rights has become less vigorous, indeed almost passive, and the pursuit of civil rights cases has waned significantly," the draft report finds.
It concludes: "The administration's statements frequently do not match its actions. Its civil rights promises often suffer for lack of funding and ineffective implementation." Bush has significantly reduced funding for programs that benefit low-income individuals and minority communities. "Failing to build on common ground, the Bush administration missed opportunities to build consensus on key civil rights issues and has instead adopted policies that divide Americans."
Marjorie Cohn, is a contributing editor to t r u t h o u t, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, and the U.S. representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists.