Bush Tough on Terrorism, Lax on Civil Rights

During the election, the Bush campaign boasted that the Justice Department was much more aggressive in Bush's first three years in office in prosecuting civil rights violence than during Clinton's last term. When he announced his departure November 9, Attorney General John Ashcroft also boasted that the Justice Department had brought more civil rights prosecutions in its three years than Clinton's Justice Department brought in his last three years. The numbers don't match their boasts. According to recent Justice Department figures, civil rights prosecutions plunged since Clinton's last years in office. The FBI has grown even laxer in recommending civil rights prosecutions during Bush's first term. The number of cases it recommended for prosecution has dropped by one-third.

The Bush administration's increasing see-no-evil approach to civil rights enforcement is not because fewer Americans are breaking civil rights laws. The FBI notes in its latest report that the number of hate crimes in America rose in 2003 from the year before. Nearly forty percent of them were racially motivated, with blacks the most frequent target of hate mongers. But the number of reported hate crimes barely scrapes the surface of civil rights lawbreaking in America.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a public advocacy group which tracks hate crimes, puts the actual number of hate crimes at more than 50,000 yearly. The gaping discrepancy is because most are either unreported or ignored by police and local officials.

The standard explanation for the drop-off in civil rights enforcement is that the Bush administration has assigned more FBI agents and Justice Department resources to the hunt for alleged terrorists. That's a plausible argument. However, Ashcroft took much heat from congressional investigators for bringing terrorism cases that were later tossed out, or that yielded little jail time for those convicted of relatively minor acts.

Even if there was clear evidence that the Bush administration were smashing terrorist cells throughout the country, and proven terrorists were being slapped with stiff sentences, civil rights prosecutions would still take a back seat to criminal and terrorism prosecutions. Presidents and their attorneys general have never placed a high premium on civil rights cases. They see them as no-win cases with little political gain, and lots of political headaches. If federal officials aggressively pursue civil rights prosecutions they risk stepping on the toes of local police, DAs, and state officials. The rare time that the feds cracked down on civil rights violence was during the civil rights battles 1960's. The wave of violence then stirred national and international revulsion and forced the Johnson administration momentarily to order more civil rights prosecutions.

There's also the belief that hate crimes are mostly things of the past. When they do occur, they are isolated acts committed by a handful of quacks, and unreconstructed bigots, and that state authorities vigorously report and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many police departments still refuse to report hate crimes, or to label crimes in which gays, and minorities are targeted because of race or sexual preference as hate crimes. The official indifference by many police agencies to hate crimes prevents federal officials, even if they wanted to more aggressively enforce civil rights laws, from accurately gauging the magnitude of civil rights violence. It also deepens the public's conviction that these crimes have diminished or are non-existent.

While police agencies that don't report or minimize hate crimes bear much blame for skewing the picture of the magnitude of civil rights violence in America, so do federal officials. When Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, it compelled the FBI to collect figures on hate violence. However, it did not compel police agencies to report them. Record keeping on hate crimes is still left up to the discretion of local police chiefs and city officials. Many don't bother compiling them because they regard hate crimes as a politically loaded minefield that can tarnish their image and create even more racial friction. They see no need to allocate more resources to enable police to recognize and combat hate violence.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1998 was supposed to close these loopholes and increase the types of hate crimes prosecuted, and the penalties for them. Republicans stonewalled the measure for years in the Senate. It finally, passed this year but is still bottled up in Congress because House and Senate can't resolve differences over the legislation.

If it finally gets out of Congress, it's problematic whether Bush will sign it into law. In the past, he has opposed strengthening civil rights laws. With his single-minded focus on the terrorism war, the likelihood is that the Justice Department will devote even more of its time and resources to chasing alleged terrorists. That will leave Americans more secure against terrorism and more defenseless against civil rights abuses.

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