Federal Civil-Rights Chief Responds To Critics of His

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The federal government's chief civil-rights official last week defended his performance, and that of the Reagan Administration as a whole, against mounting criticism of the Administration's efforts in protecting the rights of women and minorities.

Speaking before the Delaware Bar Association, William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, did not respond specifically to criticism leveled in the past few weeks by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (See story on this page.)

Same Issues Addressed

But, in his most detailed public defense yet of the Administration's civil-rights policies, he did address many of the same issues raised by the two groups in documents released this month.

"We are hearing with increasing vocal intensity that this Administration is insensitive to civil rights, has abandoned active enforcement of the civil-rights laws, and seeks to dismantle or undo the progress of past decades," Mr. Reynolds said. "The response of 'Not so'--which comes at every occasion from the President, the Attorney General, and me--is dismissed by our detractors, and, remarkably, by many in the media, as little more than empty rhetoric."

Much of Mr. Reynolds's speech was devoted to the Administration's position on school desegregation.

The Justice Department's civil-rights division, under his leadership, has decided to seek voluntary, rather than mandatory, remedies for segregation and has pledged to press for improvement of racially isolated schools. Mr. Reynolds has said the Justice Department would seek desegregation only of those individual schools which have been il-legally segregated, not of entire districts--a distinct departure from past government policy and case law.

Many civil-rights leaders--and some of the lawyers under Mr. Reynold's supervision--have attacked these policies as a return to "separate-but-equal" schooling.

"[C]ontrary to some of the more critical comments," Mr. Reynolds told the Delaware lawyers meeting in Wilmington, "we are not against desegregation. Any student desiring to attend a public school with students of the opposite race should be afforded the opportunity to do so, and we will continue to ferret out and remove any artificial barriers imposed by states or municipalities designed to defeat that result.

"But, at the same time," he continued, "we will not deprive students of the significant benefits of attending school in their own neighborhoods by insisting on a mandatory, race-conscious transportation remedy that has proven ineffective and holds out little promise for an enhanced educational experince."

To support his contentions, Mr. Reynolds cited statistics since Jan. 29, 1981, which, he said, show that the Reagan Administration has pressed civil-rights cases "as vigorously and uncompromisingly as prior administrations." In the past year, Mr. Reynolds said, the division has begun investigating discrimination in "educational-program offerings" in three cases, a step consistent with his previous pledge to stress improvement of minority schools.

Districts Not Revealed

His spokesman, John V. Wilson, said later in the week that Mr. Reynolds would not elaborate on the remarks or reveal which districts are under investigation on these grounds unless he decides to take legal action against them.

In addition, Mr. Reynolds added in his speech, the civil-rights division has negotiated consent decrees or obtained court orders in nine school-desegregation cases; entered negotiations in six others; "participated in litigation" in another six; and decided to proceed with four that were filed in the last days of the Carter Administration.

"Our largest case involves the city of Chicago which will, I believe, prove to be the first urban voluntary desegregation remedy--and will, I predict, result in a greater degree of desegregation of the Chicago school system than could have been accomplished under a mandatory busing plan."

This list of accomplishments, and others in the areas of voting rights and employment discrimination, Mr. Reynolds said, "does underscore--on the basis of clear, irrefutable facts--that the commitment of this Administration to strong and vigorous enforcement of many feder-al statutes under my responsibility is not--as our detractors insist--empty rhetoric...."

"Why, then, do we find ourselves embroiled in controversy over the policies that have been adopted by this Administration in the civil-rights area?" Mr. Reynolds asked. "The answer, I believe, centers on a fundamental difference of opinion over certain of the approaches that have been taken to remedying past discrimination."

'Sensible and Effective'

Most of the traditional remedies in civil-rights cases, the assistant attorney general said, "are both sensible and effective." But the Admini-stration has singled out mandatory busing for desegregation and affirmative-action hiring quotas as ineffective, "objectionable," and "divisive."

"In both cases," Mr. Reynolds said, "we are talking about relief that was adopted almost a decade ago without any empirical evidence to suggest a likelihood of success."

"A consensus developed after Brown v. Board of Education [the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools], both in Congress and in the country as a whole, that racial discrimination is wrong and should not be tolerated in any form," he said.

"My concern--and that of this Ad-ministration--is that certain remedies that have been developed in the past decade are threatening to dilute this essential consensus. Most Americans, I think, now support the idea that each individual should be judged on his or her merits, regardless of race.

Divisive Effect

"However, race-conscious remedies which require preferential treatment for minorities, or which intrude unnecessarily on the legitimate functions of local governments, are not widely supported. Indeed, in many instances such remedies have a divisive effect which tends to undermine popular support for the basic commitment to racial equality."

Busing, he said, has resulted in "white flight" from urban schools, erosion of tax support for city schools, and loss of parental support for public schools.

"Judged 10 years later against the test of time," Mr. Reynolds added, "it is clear that the experiment with mandatory busing as a remedy for de jure, or state-enforced, segregation has not fared well.

Public Tumult

Few issues have generated as much public tumult and anguish as court-ordered busing, and there is compelling evidence that mandatory transportation of students has failed to accomplish the remedial goal that Brown and Swann anticipated, namely, an educational environment that would provide an equal opportunity for every child, irrespective of race, to realize his or her achievement potential in accordance with industry and talent."

(Mr. Reynolds was referring to Swann V. Mecklenburg County, the 1971 Charlotte, N.C., case in which busing was first used to desegregate schools.)

The remedies favored by the current Administration, he said, "hold out more promise in the long run for providing enhanced education to minority students in a desegregated environment."

Vol. 01, Issue 23

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