How Bush Watered Down Civil-Rights Enforcement

George W. Bush was never particularly taken with the civil-rights crowd. Not that he was exactly hostile to the notion of protecting society's most vulnerable groups. But he and his minions assumed that the time for coddling minorities had passed. So after sizing up the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice—the most powerful advocate for civil rights within the federal government—Bush's operatives endeavored "to rip the heart out of [it]," in the words of Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP.

In dry statistics and even drier prose, a report released last week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) spells out how sweeping that effort became. The Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division veered away from challenging "at-large election systems" that marginalized African-Americans and focused on language discrimination against Spanish speakers. The Employment Litigation Section moved away from so-called pattern or practice cases (suits that took on widespread or systematic discrimination) in favor of individual complaints. ("Plenty of individual lawyers can bring these individual discrimination cases," pointed out Alan Jenkins, executive director of The Opportunity Agenda, a New York–based nonprofit; but only the Justice Department can pursue certain big cases that can make a real difference.) Bush's Justice Department was also particularly sensitive to discrimination against white males. In 2007 the division filed a suit against Indianapolis for favoring African-Americans and females over white males for promotion to police sergeant.

For Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the breadth of the changes crystallized during a meeting with Ralph Boyd Jr., an assistant attorney general for civil rights under Bush. A case filed by several women against the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) was then working its way through the courts. SEPTA had instituted new physical-fitness standards for aspiring transit police. Many women had a hard time meeting the new standards, which required all new applicants to run 1.5 miles in 12 minutes or less. After being rejected by SEPTA for failure to pass muster, the women sued. The Justice Department signed on to that suit under President Clinton. Under Bush, it withdrew. Henderson tried to convince Boyd of the necessity of taking a stand against what he considered a clear case of discrimination against women. Boyd, as he recalls, responded with a lecture on how the women should exercise and get in better shape. He reduced "this case of discrimination to one of personal failings," observed Henderson.

Some of the changes at Justice were arguably merited. Discrimination, after all, takes many forms. And racial minorities and women are not the only ones who feel its bite. But the Bush administration's shift was less driven by new facts or fresh thinking than by the ideological preconceptions of his appointees—by, in short, an ideological fervor that pervaded the entire department. Experienced career civil-rights litigators were sidelined and political hacks—many with meager experience in the field—were warmly welcomed. "Between 2003 and 2007 more than 70 percent of the division's attorneys left, leading to a significant depletion of capabilities and institutional knowledge," Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez told a House Judiciary subcommittee last week. The Civil Rights Division is slowly trying to recover.

For Henderson, the GAO report "confirms what those of us in the advocacy community have been saying for many years." In "almost every significant area," he observed, Bush appointees ignored the reality "of the American experience with race." They tried to shut down voluntary school-desegregation efforts, even though overwhelming evidence showed that segregation remained a serious problem. And they did virtually nothing to stop the predatory and discriminatory lending practices that targeted inner-city residents and were "at the very fore of the financial collapse." As Henderson says, the civil-rights community has been criticizing Bush's policies for some time. A 2007 report by the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights and the Center for American Progress documented the injection of a blatant political agenda into the workings of the Civil Rights Division. The counsel of career staffers was summarily rejected, a section chief was removed by political appointees, numerous high-ranking career attorneys were involuntarily transferred, and a hiring system that emphasized credentials and qualifications was thrown out. The result, said the report, was the resurfacing of the perception of favoritism, cronyism, and political influence.

Another report, issued earlier this year by LCCR, argued that not only did the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department become more politically partisan, but so did the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. That process, says LCCR, actually began under the Reagan administration, but Bush took it to a new level. Among other things, he undermined the bipartisanship of the commission that, by law, was supposed to be bipartisan: "On two occasions in recent years, sitting commissioners have changed their party affiliations from Republican to Independent, thus enabling President Bush to appoint additional Republicans to the commission," noted the report.

Another study, released last year by a coalition of organizations, including LCCR, documented the civil-rights section's sidestepping its responsibilities to root out housing discrimination: "Only a handful of cases address issues involving real estate sales and only five address racial discrimination in subsidized or low income housing. There has been a significant reduction in fair lending cases, and no recent cases have been brought that directly address the types of discriminatory predatory lending practices partly responsible for the present financial crisis."

Like many veterans of the Justice Department, Alan Jenkins, who served as assistant to the solicitor general under Clinton, is saddened by what happened under Bush: "It's a tragedy . . . and it's going to take years and years to rebuild." No administration "has had to start from scratch the way the Obama administration has," notes Jealous.

Not so long ago, Jealous recalls, Republican administrations were not always so thoroughly hostile to civil rights. President Eisenhower was behind the Civil Rights Act of 1957. And Presidents Nixon and Ford were supportive of certain civil-rights remedies as well. But somewhere along the line, civil rights became a Democratic thing. Not that the Republican Party is a monolith. But it is torn between those who see minority advocates as evil and those who see inclusion as the only option for a future. It is impossible to know, at this point, which faction will ultimately prevail—or whether a new Republican administration would try to reprise the zealotry of the Bush years.

What is clear, to the NAACP's Jealous at least, is that the present situation is absurd. Advocates for human rights need friends across the political spectrum, he says. "We have to establish a beachhead in the Republican Party." It's hard to disagree with the sentiment. It's also hard to see how that can happen absent the party itself recognizing that the impulse to fight for social justice springs not from some foreign ideology but is the cornerstone of America's original promise to itself.