[from United States Commission on Civil Rights, Redefining Rights in America: The Civil Rights Record of the George W. Bush Administration, 2001–2004, Executive Summary, viii-x (pdf)]
While judicial and legislative achievements of the 1960s and 1970s largely broke down the system of segregation and legal bases for discrimination, the effects persist and hamper equal opportunity in education, employment, housing, public accommodations, and the ability to vote. President Bush has implemented policies that have retreated from long-established civil rights promises in each of these areas.
Voting Rights: Despite promising to unite the nation and improve its election system, the President failed to act swiftly toward election reform.
• He did not provide leadership to ensure timely passage and swift implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. Thus, Congress did not appropriate funds for election reform until almost two years into his presidency.As a result of the President’s inaction, little will change before the 2004 elections, and the problems that linger, unless resolved, will most likely disenfranchise some eligible voters.
• The administration seated the federal election reform oversight board 11 months behind schedule, resulting in delayed fund distribution to states. Consequently, states did not have the equipment, infrastructure, or guidance they needed to meet HAVA’s deadlines, including implementation of statewide voter registration databases, development of voter complaint procedures, and installation of new voting equipment.
Equal Educational Opportunity: Early in his administration, the President widely promoted an education reform proposal, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and garnered bipartisan support. Despite its worthy goals, however, NCLB has flaws that will inhibit equal educational opportunity and limit its ability to close the achievement gap.
• NCLB does not sufficiently address unequal education, a major barrier to closing the achievement gap between minority and white students.Affirmative Action: The President’s stance on affirmative action is equivocal at best. President Bush has tried to please both supporters and opponents, a tactic that has resulted in a misleading and vague position. He has not exhibited strong leadership on this issue where leadership is vital.
• NCLB defers to states responsibility for defining achievement and adopting assessment measures. Educators fear that, unless there are safeguards in place, states will attach high stakes to tests, punishing students for the system’s failure to teach.
• Students, especially those who are minority, limited English proficient, low income, or have a disability, disproportionately attend schools that do not have the resources to provide necessary learning tools and, thus, are more likely to be identified as low performers and subject to sanctions.
• The lowest performing schools are also the poorest, amplifying the need for sufficient resources. However, President Bush has not aggressively pushed for increased funding, leaving NCLB underfunded every year except its first.
• In 2001, the administration asked the Supreme Court to dismiss a case challenging a Department of Transportation program for disadvantaged businesses. In announcing and discussing the case, it was clear that the administration was not basing its position on support for affirmative action, but procedural technicalities with the case.Fair Housing: Policies instituted under the Bush administration have diminished housing opportunities for poor, disproportionately minority families.
• The administration later filed briefs with the Supreme Court challenging programs that allow race to be considered as one factor among many in college admissions decisions, discrediting existing case law and arguing erroneously that this practice amounted to a quota.
• Instead of promoting affirmative action in federal contracting and education, the administration promotes “race neutral alternatives,” even though in some situations they are not applicable and in others not overly effective at maintaining diversity.
• President Bush frequently speaks about the importance of diversity and exhibits such a standard within his own Cabinet. However, his actions with respect to affirmative action are not in line with that professed commitment as he has undercut programs designed to achieve diversity.
• The President shifted resources away from rent assistance for the poor and toward home purchasing programs for minorities. Although a worthwhile effort, the President’s A Home of Your Own program is hampered by insufficient funding to relieve the chronic affordable housing crisis.Environmental Justice: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under this administration, despite some attempts, has not always been successful in advancing the cause of environmental justice.
• The President outlined a plan to eliminate billions of dollars from programs to help low-income and disabled persons pay for housing through rent vouchers, including the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, and HOPE VI, which rebuilds distressed communities.
• Although it developed an action plan for ensuring environmental justice goals are met, the agency has not developed measures of accountability and progress.Racial Profiling: Early in his term, President Bush promised to end racial profiling. Although he has not completely fulfilled that promise, he issued guidelines to prohibit racial profiling in federal law enforcement, an action unprecedented among U.S. Presidents. President Bush took other actions, however, that had negative effects.
• EPA has taken few actions to ensure that minority and low-income persons are not disparately affected by environmental contamination and has failed to develop a standard for assessing how exposure to hazards affects public health.
• EPA has de-emphasized the significance of minority and low-income populations in its environmental justice efforts.
• The administration has developed environmental proposals without adequate participation from minority populations, and has thus failed to consider the civil rights consequences of its actions.
• The administration responded to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by instituting regulations that facilitate profiling rather than prevent it. Immigrants and visitors from Arab and Middle Eastern countries were subjected to increased scrutiny, including interviews, registration, and in some cases removal.Hate Crimes: The administration paid little attention to hate crimes until after September 11. Since then, the President’s words and actions have conveyed mixed messages.
• Early on, some federal agencies denounced profiling in the performance of their agents’ routine duties, but the administration did not introduce governmentwide policies complete or comprehensive enough to have measurable positive effects after September 11.
• Commendably, two years later, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued guidelines that prohibit federal agents from making enforcement decisions based on race or ethnicity. However, the guidelines contain a broad and loosely defined exception that permits race targeting if law enforcement alleges that individuals are suspected of posing a national security threat. This exception allows profiling in certain undefined circumstances and potentially gives cover to abusers.
• Immediately after the attacks, the administration declared that acts of violence and discrimination against Arab Americans, Muslims, and those perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent would not be tolerated. The executive branch launched a coordinated campaign to prevent hate crimes against such individuals.
• The administration did not sustain its strong rhetoric after September 11. Neither did President Bush support passage of the Local Law Enforcement Act, a proposal that would protect gay men and lesbians, and persons with disabilities from hate crimes.
• President Bush has further stated that “all violent crimes are crimes of hate,” a view which does not acknowledge the bias associated with such acts.