The pattern of civil rights policy reversals described in this report should serve as a wake-up call to defenders of civil rights in Congress and outside the government. So far, no one of these actions has aroused the widespread public indignation in the way that Senator Lott’s comments did. But in the aggregate, these decisions have very serious consequences. The trend they represent is a clear roadmap of what to expect in the coming years.
Opponents of these measures and others that will follow must come together in principled opposition to civil rights backsliding. Opponents of the administration’s civil rights policies have several important goals:
1. The Bush administration should demonstrate renewed commitment to the fifty year-old bipartisan consensus on civil rights progress.
After apologizing for his paean to Strom Thurmond’s 1948 campaign, Senator Lott expressed his willingness to take concrete steps in the new Congress that would ameliorate concerns his remarks had generated. Senator Lott will no longer be able to carry out those steps as majority leader, but the need for a reconciliation process remains.
President Bush should pick up this mantle. The President should meet with a broad range of civil rights leaders and jointly formulate a civil rights agenda for the 108th Congress. He should reconsider regulatory activity that threatens civil rights progress, refrain from overturning settled government positions in civil rights cases, and request adequate funding of civil rights activities, including activities to address the digital divide and flaws in election administration.
2. Congress should fulfill its constitutional role of overseeing the administration’s civil rights activities and should consider how it can address regulatory actions inconsistent with the purpose of the 1960s civil rights laws.
The administration has undermined enforcement of important civil rights laws without sufficient criticism from Congress. Last year both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees held oversight hearings with respect to the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, but were met with bland denials from Assistant Attorney General Boyd that policy changes were taking place.
Congress should play a more aggressive role in ensuring that the executive branch executes the laws as they are written, especially in the case of landmark laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1991, Congress passed a new civil rights law for the sole purpose of overturning court decisions that had interpreted the civil rights laws too narrowly; consideration should be given to whether a similar approach is needed to overturn unfavorable court decisions and unfavorable regulatory choices.
3. Congress should provide adequate funding for important civil rights programs.
Congress also has responsibility to ensure that its civil rights laws are enforced by adequately funded agencies. While the administration proposes a budget to Congress, lawmakers retain ultimate responsibility for setting funding levels. In some cases, as with the digital divide programs, Congress has resisted cuts proposed by the executive branch. But in funding the civil rights enforcement units of each department, Congress has generally gone along with inflationary funding.
The promotion and protection of civil rights is a pressing domestic priority and should be funded accordingly.
4. Congress should consider seriously the need for new laws protecting gays and lesbians against employment discrimination, strengthening federal hate crime law, and ending the discredited practice of racial profiling.
While enforcement of existing civil rights laws is important, there are some minorities that lack statutory protection and other areas where protections need to be broadened and remedies expanded. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the End Racial Profiling Act, and the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, each discussed earlier in this report, should be near the top for consideration in the 108th Congress.
5. The civil rights community must remain vigilant in monitoring the state of civil rights.
Citizens and groups concerned about civil rights must be ever vigilant against backsliding in the nation’s civil rights policies. This report is the first step in a long-term effort to monitor regulations, litigation positions, and funding decisions that affect the state of civil rights in America. The Bush administration’s decisions that make up civil rights policy will remain below the radar screen unless advocates bring this work to the attention of the public.