Civil Rights Nominee Defends Record at Hearing

By Erik W. Robelen — March 06, 2002 5 min read
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President Bush’s pick for the top civil rights post at the Department of Education finally had a chance to make his case to a Senate panel last week, five months after he was nominated.

Gerald A. Reynolds, the nominee to become the assistant secretary for the office for civil rights, faced some tough questioning from Democrats, especially Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who expressed skepticism about Mr. Reynolds’ qualifications for the position.

Some civil rights advocates have contended that Mr. Reynolds, based on his past writings and statements, may not be aggressive in enforcing the civil rights statutes under the OCR’s purview.

He tried to dispel such concerns at the Feb. 26 hearing.

“If confirmed, I will uphold the Constitution and vigorously enforce this nation’s civil rights laws,” Mr. Reynolds told Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee members, who are considering his nomination before it moves to the Senate.

The administration in June first proposed Mr. Reynolds, 38, to head the OCR, but didn’t formally nominate him until late September. The office is charged with ensuring equal access to education and promoting educational excellence through enforcement of five federal laws that protect against discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, age, or disability.

As of last week, it remained unclear whether the Bush administration could muster the votes needed in the closely divided Senate education committee to win approval of his nomination.

Sen. Kennedy, a leading liberal and the committee chairman, seemed to doubt if the conservative nominee’s credentials were a good match for the post. Before becoming a consultant to the Education Department last year following his nomination, Mr. Reynolds worked for nearly four years as the senior regulatory counsel for Kansas City Power and Light Co. in Missouri.

“Your resume is an impressive one,” said Mr. Kennedy, who, however, suggested it was short on education and civil rights experience. After running off a list of education issues related to civil rights, he said, “What work have you done over the period of recent years, in any of these areas?”

Mr. Reynold replied by pointing to his position, from March 1997 to August 1998, as the president of the Washington- based Center for New Black Leadership. He said he spent half his time in that job on education issues, visiting schools, meeting with education experts, and reviewing research literature. He also said he was an education major in college, and had worked as a student-teacher.

The Reynolds Record

Mr. Reynolds was a legal analyst for the Center for Equal Opportunity—a research and advocacy group that has opposed racial preferences— for about a year and a half, beginning in 1995.

Beyond his professional credentials, it is Mr. Reynolds’ views that have come under fire from traditional civil rights groups. Among other positions, he has argued that racial preferences in college admissions and government contracting exacerbate racial tensions and discourage, rather than promote, minority achievement.

In a Feb. 25 letter to Sen. Kennedy, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a consortium of about 30 civil rights and labor groups, argued that Mr. Reynolds “holds extreme positions on many civil rights issues, is openly hostile to affirmative action, and publicly minimizes the pernicious effects of racism and discrimination.”

Mr. Reynolds used the Feb. 26 hearing to clarify some of his views. For example, while acknowledging that he has emphasized barriers for African-Americans other than racism—such as crime, educational quality, and out-of-wedlock births—he said he does not discount racial prejudice.

“Up until 30 years ago, we had a racial caste system in large parts of this country,” he said. “It really didn’t matter how smart you were, it didn’t matter how industrious you were; your skin color, my son’s skin color, would determine his fate. Now, things have changed. That is not to say, though, that discrimination is no longer with us. ... It will always be with us.”

Mr. Reynolds also said he is not opposed to affirmative action as such, though he suggested it is a poorly defined phrase that “means anything to anybody.”

Asked for his views on racial preferences, he said that “if the state can show a compelling interest and also demonstrate that the means are narrowly tailored, then the use of racial classification is permitted. That is the law, and that is what I will enforce.”

‘Disparate Impact’

Mr. Reynolds was asked repeatedly by Democratic senators to discuss his position on “disparate impact,” a method used to identify potential discrimination in situations in which policies may be race-neutral but still have the effect of excluding a certain group of people, such as women or minorities.

“I’ve been cooped up for quite some time, unable to address these issues,” he told the senators. “The disparate-impact theory, it is a very powerful tool for smoking out discrimination.” He added, “If I am confirmed, we will continue to use that powerful tool, as well as all the other tools that we have in our tool kit at the office for civil rights.”

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., a member of the education committee, testified in support of Mr. Reynolds at the outset of the hearing. “He’s a skilled attorney who understands the role of the office for civil rights,” he said.

William L. Taylor, a veteran civil rights lawyer and vice chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, was not impressed.

“Mr. Reynolds is functionally illiterate about civil rights laws,” Mr. Taylor asserted after the hearing, contending that the nominee had failed in many cases to answer, or even fully understand, questions that were posed to him.

Some observers have predicted that the vote on Mr. Reynolds will be tight. The closely divided committee is made up of 10 Democrats, 10 Republicans, and Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the former Republican who is now the sole Independent in the Senate.

Mr. Jeffords, a potential swing vote on the nomination, requested the hearing. He has not made up his mind, said his spokesman, Erik Smulson, but was “very impressed with the nominee’s testimony.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights Nominee Defends Record at Hearing


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