Clinton Civil-Rights Agenda Cloudy, Advocates Say

By Peter Schmidt — January 25, 1995 4 min read
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Midway through President Clinton’s term, his Administration lacks a clear agenda for addressing racial segregation and racial discrimination in schools, civil-rights experts and political analysts say.

The Justice and Education departments still have not determined how to address existing desegregation cases--and whether or where to bring new ones--and have received little guidance from the White House in crafting civil-rights policy, the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan panel of former federal civil-rights officials and other advocates, says in a report released last week. (See related story )

The report’s authors and other observers do note that the Administration has dramatically stepped up its enforcement of civil-rights laws related to educational discrimination.

They also point out that President Clinton has united various federal agencies in an unprecedented effort to actively enforce laws against housing and lending discrimination and to disperse public housing from the inner cities. Many civil-rights experts say that these efforts are likely, in the long run, to do much to remedy and prevent the residential racial segregation that has undermined many efforts to integrate schools.

By and large, however, the Administration has taken few stands on racial discrimination in schools that are much different from the Bush Administration’s, both liberal and conservative observers say.

“The ball has not been advanced one yard, under this Administration, further than it was with ours,” contended Michael L. Williams, who served as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights under President George Bush.

Case-by-Case Approach

Most experts say the Clinton Administration appears to be choosing its school-desegregation battles carefully and covering little new legal ground.

Federal officials recently acknowledged as much, saying they have made a deliberate, pragmatic attempt to address racial bias on a case-by-case basis, using well-defined and well-accepted law.

“What we needed more than creating new laws or new theories was a committed, sincere enforcement of traditional legal theories,” said Norma V. Cantu, who succeeded Mr. Williams as the head of the O.C.R., which investigates complaints against schools and colleges and monitors their compliance with civil-rights laws.

“We are not trying to expand the law or contract the law; we are just enforcing the law,” said Isabelle Katz Pinzler, a deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department.

“There are a lot of education issues out there, but not all of them can be addressed by the Constitution,” Ms. Pinzler said. “It is not like the bad old days when the schools were segregated by law. We are at a level where people know better than to admit what they are doing, and it takes a greater amount of sophistication and resources to prove these cases.”

Chris A. Hansen, a desegregation lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, largely agreed with that assessment, saying: “There certainly aren’t a lot of classic school-desegregation cases left to be filed.”

“We need,” he added, “some better answers to the Chicagos and the Clevelands and the Detroits and the cities where there are few [white] children left, where the classic desegregation remedies are of limited value.”

But Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University and a prominent school-desegregation expert, said the Administration could be doing far more to address suburban and metropolitan school segregation, to update older court orders, and to prod districts that have failed to fully provide court-ordered desegregation remedies.

Cleaning House

Ms. Pinzler, Ms. Cantu, and several civil-rights advocates said that the Administration’s desegregation efforts have been slowed by a backlog of cases, diminished budgets, and demoralized staffs that it inherited from the Reagan and Bush administrations.

While Mr. Williams said that much of Ms. Cantu’s work has simply built on the foundations he had laid, she contends that when she first took office in May of 1993, the O.C.R. appeared to be making “almost no efforts at all in the area of school desegregation.”

“The last Administration had left those cases in a state of disarray,” Ms. Cantu said. “We could not find certain files. School-desegregation plans that our office had negotiated were missing. Cases had been referred to the Department of Justice, where they had languished for years.”

The Justice Department lacked an assistant attorney general for civil rights until the swearing in last April of Deval L. Patrick, a former lawyer for the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The agency weighed in on school desegregation for the first time last month, filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the Kansas City, Mo., school-desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In its brief, the department argues that a federal appeals court was correct in looking at the district’s test scores in determining whether the state had fulfilled its obligation to pay for desegregation remedies. (See related story

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1995 edition of Education Week as Clinton Civil-Rights Agenda Cloudy, Advocates Say


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