Bipartisan Group Urges Bush To Revive Civil-Rights Enforcement

By William Snider — January 25, 1989 10 min read

Washington--If President Bush is to fulfill his pledge to vigorously oppose all forms of discrimination in American society, he must revive the federal civil-rights enforcement mechanisms that “fell into disuse” during the Reagan Administration, a bipartisan commission said last week.

The panel--all of whose members formerly served in federal civil-rights posts--charged in a report that the Reagan Administration veered sharply from the methods used successfully by six previous adminis6trations to enforce anti-discrimination laws. It cited enforcement shortcomings in education, employment, housing, and other fields covered by federal civil-rights legislation.

During Mr. Reagan’s two terms as President, the government imposed “virtually a moratorium on the implementation of civil-rights laws and court decisions,” said Arthur Flemming, the chairman of the panel, who described himself as a “lifelong Republican.”

Quoting language used by Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Flemming said the panel’s report seeks to remind the Bush Administration of “the fierce urgency of now” as the time to start repairing the effects of the past eight years. He characterized Mr. Reagan’s policy on civil rights as “the doctrine of nonacquiescence.”

The report was issued one day after Mr. Bush promised a group of black leaders gathered here to mark the birthday of the slain civil-rights leader that “bigotry and indifference will find no safe home on our shores, in our public life, in our neighborhoods, or in our homes.”

The President-elect’s remarks and his Cabinet appointments were taken as signs of hope by the members of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, who presented their report at a press conference here last week.

“I’m very, very optimistic,” said William H. Brown 3rd, a lawyer and former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“It seems like we’re coming out from under storm clouds--storm clouds of injustice and insensitivity,” he said.

Missed Opportunity

Saying that the Reagan Administration’s policies had denied minority and handicapped students access to equal educational resources, Mr. Flemming noted that “those denials are irretrievable.”

“We’ve missed our opportunity as far as millions of people are concerned,” said Mr. Flemming, who was chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1974 to 1981. He also served as secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Eisenhower.

While civil-rights advocates have frequently charged the Reagan Administration with failures to enforce laws guaranteeing equality of opportunity, the new report provides what is thought to be the most comprehensive look thus far at the actual decline in enforcement efforts by federal agencies.

“During the 1980’s,” the report states, “problems of bureaucratic delay and inefficiency, an unwillingness to vigorously enforce some laws and regulations, and a failure to collect data on the nature and scope of discrimination caused implementation of federal civil-rights policy to stagnate.”

Education Enforcement

Among those agencies charged with enforcing civil rights in elementary and secondary education, the study found that, since 1981:

Only four lawsuits have been filed by the Justice Department’s civil-rights division. At the same time, the report says, “underfunded private civil-rights groups have brought several school-desegregation cases in large urban areas and have won metropolitan-wide desegregation remedies.”

Consent agreements reached between the Justice Department and school districts to settle civil-rights cases “are substantially weaker than decrees which school districts have been willing to agree to in cases brought by the victims of segregation.”

The Education Department’s office for civil rights proved unable to process discrimination complaints in a timely manner. At the same time, notes the report, it “failed to expend approximately $20 million appropriated to it from 1980 to 1985 which could have been used to reduce the backlog.”

In the area of bilingual education, the ocr conducted only 95 compliance reviews in 66 school districts, “even though violations of civil-rights laws were found in 58 percent of the cases.” By contrast, the report states, the ocr conducted 600 compliance reviews in 573 school districts during the period from 1975 to 1980.

The Education Department has never issued interpretive regulations outlining school districts’ obligations under the Age Discrimination Act, or their obligations to assure equal educational opportunity to language-minority students àunder Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Justice Department has opposed the intervention of victims in cases initiated by the government and opposed settlements agreed to by private plaintiffs and defendants. In some cases, the report says, the department “has abandoned longstanding positions favoring the victims of discrimination on grounds that the relief goes too far, and has even switched sidesto support defendants.”

Gary Curran, a spokesman for the ocr, last week said Education Department officials had “no comment” on the report.

Citizens’ Commission

The report, “One Nation, Indivisible,” was compiled by the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights with the assistance of more than 40 civil-rights experts in various fields. A second part of the report, scheduled to be released next month, will contain papers from each of the authors detailing the Reagan Administration’s record on a broad range of civil-rights issues.

The group was formed in 1982 by former federal civil-rights officials after members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, including Mr. Flemming, were fired for criticizing the Reagan Administration’s performance on civil-rights issues.

Echoing the comments of other critics, the new report says that the U.S. commission’s “role as a fact-gatherer and monitor of federal performance has virtually disappeared, and it is beset with severe problems of mismanagement, lack of purpose, and very little accomplishment.”

“If the commission is not thoroughly reconstituted as a bipartisan independent agency it should be abolished,” the report recommends.

‘Major Rebuilding’ Needed

The report takes Mr. Reagan’s Administration to task for attempting to revise interpretations of civil-rights laws and court orders. But, it notes, the Congress and the federal courts have generally reaffirmed, and in some cases extended, existing anti-discrimination protections.

“The unfortunate news is that while most civil-rights policies remain intact,” the report says, “it will take a major rebuilding effort in the federal government to ensure that the laws’ protections provide tangible assistance to persons who have been denied equality of opportunity.”

That task will be made more difficult, it says, by the fact that “the departure of experienced lawyers and investigators has weakened the staffs of many civil-rights enforcement agencies.”

“A lot of these people came into government with the expectation that they were going to be enforcing laws,” said William Taylor, a former staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an editor of the report.

“They’ve been very, very disappointed,” he said.

Executive Leadership

Several civil-rights lawyers who left the Justice Department’s education division have confirmed in previous interviews with Education Week that, as Mr. Taylor said last week, “their morale is just dreadful.’'

But among those who have chosen not to leave government service, he said, “there is an air of expectation that maybe a new day is dawning.”

While state governments and private groups have carried the torch for civil-rights causes during the Reagan era, the report notes that "[i]f there is one constant in the continuing struggle for equality under law, it is that progress has come only during periods of strong, positive executive leadership.”

Thus, it calls on President Bush to grasp what it describes as “a genuine opportunity to reaffirm the national commitment to civil rights, to make a fresh start and to set the nation on a course towards civil-rights progress and reconciliation.”

All Presidential appointees, the report says, should be instructed that they must enforce all civil-rights statutes, agency regulations, and remedies sanctioned by the courts “unless and until they are changed, even when the appointees may disagree with the laws.”

Among its numerous education-related recommendations, the report says that:

Mr. Bush should establish a Cabinet-level task force to examine signals of intergroup tensions, such as the violent incidents in Howard Beach, N.Y., and Forsyth County, Ga., as well as the “English only” movement. That panel, it says, should develop a coordinated action plan within 60 days for dealing with the causes and results of such conflicts.

The departments of Education and Justice should require school districts to use the full range of constitutional remedies, including mandatory student reassignments, compensatory-education programs, and interdistrict relief, to achieve meaningful school desegregation.

The Justice Department should agree to terminate court-ordered school-desegregation plans only when the school district agrees to refrain from practices that will cause resegregation, and all vestiges of prior discriminatory practices have been eliminated--including patterns of residential segregation caused by segregation of the schools.

All agencies should be required to develop management programs to ensure timely resolution of individual discrimination complaints.

The secretary of education should rescind the policy adopted in 1984 of sampling school districts at random to collect information on the racial composition of schools, classes, faculty, and related services. The Education Department, says the report, should return to the pre-1984 methodology, which targeted districts that were more likely to have violated civil-rights protections.

The secretary of education should also conduct a comprehensive count of the number of language-minority children in need of bilingual or English-as-a-second-language services. As early as 1982, the report notes, former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell acknowledged that the ''lack of [an] accurate count is a matter of national concern.”

L.D.F. Survey Cited

The speakers at the press conference also noted that the American public seems ready to move further toward the goal of achieving real equality between the races, according to a recent survey commissioned by the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The survey revealed that, in proportions of 88 percent or more, both the general public and the “persistently poor” favor special school programs for underclass children and a federal Youth Corps program to help disadvantaged young people “learn to read and write, organize themselves, and learn to function productively.”

The percentage of whites who oppose the mandatory busing of students to achieve racial balance has dropped dramatically in recent years, falling from a consistent 75 percent for three decades to a current 54 percent, according to the survey. The survey, conducted by Louis Harris & Associates, found that black respondents supported busing by a majority of 67 percent to 28 percent.

Even among those who oppose busing, the survey found, 51 percent of whites and 79 percent of blacks would favor programs that send white students to top-quality schools in inner cities and black students to equally good schools outside their neighborhoods.

The citizens’ commission panelists noted that simply ensuring access to equal opportunities may not be enough to eradicate past discrimination.

Minorities and the handicapped “must also have genuine opportunities to recognize their right of access,” Mr. Flemming said.

To this end, the panel also recommended that the federal government more generously fund such programs as Head Start, Chapter 1, and bilingual education that help disadvantaged students “derive benefits from civil-rights laws.”

“I hope President Bush will seize on this opportunity and turn this ship of state around,” Mr. Brown said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Bipartisan Group Urges Bush To Revive Civil-Rights Enforcement