In the Line of Fire

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Former civil rights advocate Norma V. Cantu now runs the federal office that investigates discrimination in schools. Her views and her office's tactics have some critics up in arms.


Norma V. Cantu, the federal civil rights enforcer whom conservatives compare to an attack dog, thanks the woman who introduces her with a gentle hug. Then, she makes her own introduction. "I'm Norma Cantu--a product of affirmative action and proud of it," the dark-haired, dark-eyed career activist announces to an audience of college officials gathered for an Oct. 6 meeting in the nation's capital.

Speaking with the enthusiasm of a high school cheerleader, she tells the crowd that, as a 19-year-old applicant to Harvard Law School, she may have received preferential treatment because the Ivy League school wanted to boost the number of teenagers on campus.

Or maybe the school accepted her because she graduated from Pan American University in Edinburg, Texas (now known as the University of Texas-Pan American), a school that no one in Cambridge, Mass., had ever heard of. "They looked at me with puzzlement and said: 'You graduated from an airline?' " she jokes to the largely pro-affirmative action audience.

Or maybe her application won notice because she is a woman. Or maybe because she's Hispanic.

"It could have been any kind of affirmative action," she concludes the anecdote. "I don't know which kind it was."

A Pre-emptive Strike

In an April 30, 1993, column in The Wall Street Journal , conservative legal activist Clint Bolick attacked Cantu even before she had been confirmed as assistant secretary.

[Lani] Guinier and Ms. Cantu are far from household names, but the duo has the litigation experience and mental firepower to profoundly alter the civil rights landscape. Both have blazed the outer frontiers in their respective areas of voting law and education....

... Ms. Cantu brings to her civil rights post in the Department of Education a zeal for social engineering both old and new. In Austin, Ms. Cantu argued (unsuccessfully) that a community that has desegregated its schools cannot phase out forced busing until residential integration is achieved.

.p.. The appointments of Ms. Guinier and Ms. Cantu would place the powerful federal civil rights arsenal in the hands of ideologues. It also would blur the lines between advocacy groups and government agencies, as they were in the pre-Reagan years, when the executive branch subordinated law enforcement to its ideological agenda.

Affirmative action changed Cantu's life. Because of it, she left behind her working-class roots in a Texas border town to become a prominent litigator feared by officials throughout the Lone Star State. Now, the daughter of a letter carrier and an assistant principal is staking out positions on affirmative action and other sensitive topics as the Department of Education's assistant secretary for civil rights.

All of this has put the cheery, 43-year-old, Brownsville, Texas, native at the center of a political storm. As the front-woman for a federal office with the delicate charge of investigating discrimination in schools nationwide, she has been blasted by conservatives and liberals alike--albeit for very different reasons.

Any action she takes on a wide range of issues--affirmative action, student and faculty sexual harassment, gender equity--is potential fodder for loud complaints from the right that she's too prescriptive and murmurs from the left that she and the rest of the Clinton administration are not aggressive enough.

"If you are hearing criticisms that we're not left enough or we're not right enough, it wasn't our intent to be political at all," Cantu says. "Our intent in the training that we invest in our staff is to enforce the laws that exist. We don't see ourselves driven by any ideology one way or the other. We see ourselves as public servants, as law enforcers, and as people who have a pretty heavy responsibility to see to it that tax dollars aren't used to support discrimination."

Norma Cantu is a diminutive woman with a quick smile and a ready wit. She greets acquaintances warmly, inquiring how they are with visible concern and laughing easily at their jokes, as well as her own. On the surface, she is not an intimidator. But get beyond the surface, and she provokes strong reactions.

Conservative legal activist Clint Bolick, in a 1993 guest piece on The Wall Street Journal's editorial page headlined "Clinton's Quota Queens," attacked Cantu for showing "a zeal for social engineering" even before Congress approved her nomination to her $115,700-a-year post. (President Clinton later withdrew the name of Lani Guinier, the other target of Bolick's piece, from consideration for the top civil rights job in the Department of Justice.)

As recently as last month, the Journal's editorial page called Cantu a symbol of "a legally reckless" Clinton administration.

The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, has set Cantu in its sights several times in the past year.

"If Congress doesn't check Norma Cantu's runaway leftism, it won't really be fair to complain that she holds herself above the law," the magazine wrote in April. "Congress will have decided: Ms. Cantu is the law."

"It's one of the most difficult jobs because everybody hates you. ... You're not doing enough, or you're doing too much."

G.H. Gregory,
National School Boards Association

On the political left, commentator and free speech activist Nat Hentoff called Cantu a vigilante in his syndicated column this fall when he raised the possibility that her office would investigate remarks by a University of Texas professor that some portrayed as racially insensitive. The office for civil rights has no plans to investigate the comments, a spokesman for the office said recently.

Others say the OCR hasn't been aggressive enough in pursuing its mission of civil rights enforcement, though many attribute any shortcoming to a judicial and political climate that is increasingly resistant to policies such as racial and other preferences in hiring and school admissions.

"The problem at OCR ... is a problem with the Clinton administration and the times in which they find themselves," says J. Richard Cohen, the legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal public-interest firm in Montgomery, Ala.

With California's Proposition 209 ballot initiative restricting the state's affirmative action programs and conservative federal judges appointed by Republican administrations striking down long-standing affirmative action policies such as the one that guided admissions to the University of Texas Law School, Mr. Clinton and his team are forced to play defense with policies to preserve affirmative action. The strategy is best summarized in the president's own words in a major affirmative action address in 1995: "Mend it, but don't end it."

"Where we are, it would be difficult for [the administration] to do everything civil rights advocates would want it to," Cohen says.

Cantu arrived in Washington nearly five years ago with a reputation as an aggressive litigator who never shied away from suing government agencies over civil rights violations. As the regional counsel based in San Antonio for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Cantu sued the state of Texas both over its K-12 finance formula and alleged discrimination against minorities in its higher education system.

While many such cases settle before trial, Cantu took those two to court--and won.

MALDEF is one of the many civil rights groups modeled after the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund after its success in ending legalized school segregation in the 1950s. The Hispanic advocacy group is based in San Francisco and has offices throughout the country, including Washington, Cantu's current home.

"Norma has a record of being a butt-kicking litigator with some success," said Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director of the Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Boston watchdog group known as FairTest that works closely with MALDEF and other civil rights groups on cases protesting alleged biases in standardized testing.

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