Bush Appointee Will Kill the US Commission on Civil Rights

Perhaps chafing from a stinging criticism of his civil rights record (or glaring lack of one), President Bush earlier this month appointed Gerald A. Reynolds to head the US Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), the 57-year old civil rights oversight body. Reynolds’ appointment came as long-time Chair Mary Frances Berry and Vice Chair Cruz Reynoso resigned. Reynolds, an African American lawyer and associate at the anti-affirmative action and ironically named think tank Center for Equal Opportunity, is stridently against affirmative action, leading critics of the president’s choice to raise concerns about the future of the Civil Rights Commission.

Many right-wingers applauded Bush’s nomination of Reynolds because they believe the commission is "outmoded" and "irrelevant." Reynolds, who described affirmative action as "the big lie," shares this view. After his nomination he rejected the past work of the commission by stating that 2004 is different from 1964. Racial discrimination may exist, he told several major newspapers, but that isn’t what causes disproportionate unemployment, wage discrimination, higher disease rates, inadequate access to good education, unfair housing (and so on) for people of color.

His remarks thinly veil his real beliefs about the sources of unequal conditions. At bottom, he believes that people of color are to blame for the problems they face, and if only they had a "bootstraps" mentality, things would change. In his comments to the press, Reynolds implicitly rejected the results of study after study that demonstrate the persistence of institutional racism and the necessity for affirmative action policies to reverse it.

Supporters of the Bush’s choice celebrated the new direction the commission will likely move in. Peter Kirsanow, an African American commissioner infamous for stating that concentration camps may be necessary for Arab Americans after 9/11, expressed near jubilation after Berry’s resignation. Another Bush-appointee, Abigail Thernstrom, a white opponent of affirmative action, described Berry’s tenure as "impoverished" and "less effective than she could be."

Critics of Bush’s choices expressed doubt that the USCCR would remain an independent watchdog of civil rights issues. In fact, it appears that far from independence, the commission will now become the mouthpiece and arm of the far-right ideology of anti-civil rights wrapped in an institutional moniker of "civil rights commission."

Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of labor unions, civil rights organizations, and faith-based groups, said that Reynolds’ "appointment is less about civil rights oversight than remaking the commission in the image of the administration." Bush’s choice to chair the commission and its new right-wing majority "effectively brings to an end the Civil Rights Commission."

Bush’s appointment of Reynolds and other affirmative action foes to the commission points out his anti-civil rights agenda. But it is almost certainly also meant as a rebuke to a body that has been a thorn in his side for his entire presidency.

In 2001, the USCCR, especially as a result of the leadership of Mary Frances Berry, exposed and criticized problems in the elections that brought Bush to the White House four years ago. After hearings in which over 100 witnesses of voting irregularities, election law experts, voters, and others testified, the USCCR described numerous election problems that likely violated the civil rights of thousands of voters in Florida. These included: non-felons removed from voter registration rolls based upon unreliable information; many African Americans were prevented from voting because they were assigned to polling sites that could not confirm voting eligibility status; many voter registration applications were not processed in a timely or proper manner; many Jewish and elderly voters received defective and complicated ballots; polling places were closed early or moved without notice; old and defective election equipment was found in poor precincts; many Haitian Americans and Puerto Rican voters were not provided language assistance; persons with disabilities faced accessibility difficulties; too few poll workers were adequately trained and too few funds were committed to voter education activities.

Within the context of the hotly disputed 2000 election, the USCCR’s relatively mild criticisms were viewed by the Bush presidency and the right in general as questioning the legitimacy of his administration. Additionally, the commission’s persistent criticism of the administration’s failure to reform the national electoral process enough to avoid similar problems in the 2002 and 2004 elections also met with disdain from the White House.

During Bush’s first term, the USCCR also published reports critical of the anti-affirmative action stand of the White House. Specifically, the commission rejected the so-called percentage plan offered by the Bush administration as an alternative to affirmative action. Percentage plans, in the case of higher education, claim to be race neutral but make no effort to ensure that people of color have access to public universities. In fact, the USCCR found, after studying percentage plans in Florida, Texas, and California in 2002, that they "do not successfully reach underrepresented minority groups, and do not ultimately improve diversity." Commissioner Berry argued that percentage plans, as shown by the evidence, still needed actual affirmative action policies aimed at including students of color to ensure adequate and equal access to higher education.

Further, while the Bush administration sided with opponents of affirmative action in the 2003 Supreme Court cases Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, the USCCR insisted that equal access and protection along with the "educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body" were important reasons to keep affirmative action policies.

More recently, just before retiring, Berry delivered a 166-page report on the Bush civil rights record. It was initially published in September 2004, but wasn’t released until after the election as an official commission report while right-wing commissioner’s attempted to block it. This report documented the Bush administration’s failure to advance the cause of civil rights.

The report described Bush as having been "not been clear in his commitment to civil rights." It saw Bush’s treatment of civil rights as mostly symbolic: attending certain functions or festivals, or using confusing words that fail to convey a strong understanding of civil rights matters. Further, the president, the reports continues, attempts to erase the issue of civil rights by generalizing unrelated issues under the category of civil rights. For example, Bush calls all violent crimes hate crimes, erasing the fact that some crimes are committed out of racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or sexist-motivate hate.

Bush’s attempt to bring "faith-based initiatives" under the umbrella of civil rights protections also rang hollow for the commission. Bush’s equation of the "lack of support for churches with prejudice and bigotry" confuses the public about what are legitimate civil rights causes. On the other hand, providing federal support for faith organizations may be a civil rights issue, the commission argued, because it legitimizes employment discrimination committed by some religious organizations that refuse to hire non-adherents of their beliefs.

The report also rapped Bush for equating skin color with expertise on civil rights as evidenced by his political appointments and for his concerted effort to ignore the advice of mainstream civil rights leaders.

Bush also worked to cut funding from civil rights enforcement agencies or other public programs related to equal access and protection such as education programs, low-income housing and other poverty programs. He also tried to dismantle Title IX enforcement programs and he "terminated the Department of Labor’s Equal Pay Matters Initiative."

While in some cases Bush actively worked to eliminate programs that offered protection of civil rights, in other situations he ignored calls to expand or create new protections. His refusal to enforce existing affirmative action policies effectively, his refusal to call for stronger enforcement against hate crimes, to outlaw employment discrimination against LGBT people, and his support for banning same-sex marriage show a distinct lack of concern for civil rights. According to the report, "his deeds demonstrate the lack of importance President Bush places on the need to correct prevalent civil rights problems."

Much of the work of the USCCR in the past period came as a result of the courageous, embattled leadership of Mary Frances Berry and Cruz Reynoso. Wade Henderson described their efforts as "distinguished." Of Berry, Henderson remarked that her "leadership and commitment to the enforcement of civil rights has been unwavering over the course of a tenure that spans 25 years." Berry, a political independent, was appointed to the body in 1979 and is well known for having voiced her strong opposition to numerous attempts by right-wing administrations to undermine or co-opt the work of that body.