Good, Bad and Ugly in Bush's Civil Rights Record

Election '04

Three weeks before the presidential election, career staffers of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a press release and posted a report on their web site charging that President Bush has miserably failed to provide leadership on and enforcement of civil rights laws. The Republicans on the Commission screamed loudly that they had not reviewed or approved the report. That process could take months. Republicans say that the staff posted it before the election to embarrass Bush and help Democratic presidential contender John Kerry.

While the report gives civil rights leaders and Democrats more ammunition to blast Bush on civil rights, his record is in truth an odd mix of the good, bad and the ugly. There's the good. The year Bush took office a national debate raged over racial profiling. Black leaders were furious that police stopped, frisked, and arrested black and Latino males after unwarranted street and traffic stops in far greater proportions than whites. Bush did not totally ignore or downplay the issue.

In June 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive and guidelines to all federal law enforcement agencies banning the practice. The key litmus test of the federal government's civil rights commitment has been its willingness or lack thereof to crack down on racially motivated hate crimes and police violence against minorities. Presidents and their attorneys general no matter whether they have been liberal or moderate Democrats or conservative Republicans have been loath to bring these prosecutions. They prefer to leave them to local officials. Bush is no different. Yet when his administration prosecuted police officers, and those who committed racial terror acts that included murder, assault, cross burnings, and 9/11 backlash crimes against Muslim or Arab-Americas, it brought more of them during his first three years in office than were brought during the last three years of Clinton's administration.

In its first year, the Bush administration initiated three times more employment discrimination cases than the Clinton administration filed in its last year. It collected more money in civil penalties and damages from employers guilty of discrimination than during Clinton's last three years. It also sent twice the number of review letters to school districts demanding compliance with desegregation orders than were sent during Clinton's last two years.

No issue has been more volatile since the 2000 election than voting fraud and discrimination. Black leaders still accuse the Republicans of dumping thousands of eligible black voters from the rolls in Florida and hijacking the White House. Their anger hasn't abated. The NAACP, citizen watchdog groups, and Democrats have filed lawsuits in Florida, Ohio, Missouri, and other states claiming vote fraud. But there is no evidence that Bush has systematically subverted the enforcement provisions of the voting rights act to diminish black and Latino political strength and bolster the Republicans. Bush has reviewed more state redistricting plans and cases involving possible voting abuses than during Clinton's last two years in office. It has even prosecuted a handful of voting rights fraud cases.

That's the good part of his civil rights record, now the bad. Since the September 11 terror attacks, the Bush administration has come dangerously close to legitimizing racial profiling against Muslim and Arab-Americans. It has stepped up surveillance, interviews, registration, and deportation of Muslims, many under questionable circumstances. It has also refused to back an expanded hate crimes bill.

Bush did not aggressively fight to implement the Help America Vote Act of 2002, nor lobby Congress to speed up funding for the initiative. Republican voter groups have been caught red-handed in Oregon and Nevada dumping Democratic voter registrations. Republican registrars have limited the number of ballots, and have cut back the number of polling places in heavily black neighborhoods, and have rejected thousands of applications on the most spurious technical grounds. The Justice Department has taken no action in these cases.

Bush's much-touted No Child Left Behind Act is inadequately funded and does not address the soaring number of poor, under funded, racially segregated public schools nationally. This unequal education is the major cause of the cavernous black-white achievement gap. The Bush administration also backed the white students in their effort to torpedo the University of Michigan's affirmative action program. It implemented "race neutral alternatives" that cripple the fight for workplace diversity.

In their final debate, Kerry hammered Bush for not meeting with NAACP leaders. Bush is the first sitting president since Warren G. Harding to refuse an invitation to speak to the NAACP's national convention. He has had two grudging, perfunctory meetings with the Congressional Black Caucus.

Bush's civil rights record has good and bad in it, and even the Civil Rights Commission staffers admitted that in their report. But that didn't spur them to play dirty political pool and publicly post their report on the Internet where it'll stay for a year. It's the ugly side of the Bush administration's race record that did.

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