Alan Jenkins is executive director of The Opportunity Agenda, a communications, research, and advocacy organization with the mission of building the national will to expand opportunity in America. He is a former Assistant to the Solicitor General at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Last week, The New York Times reported that the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department has “recast the federal government's role in civil rights” from addressing racial discrimination to bringing suits alleging discrimination based on religion. By framing the drastic and damaging changes at Justice as a “shift,” the Times missed the point.
There’s no question that religious discrimination has increased since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and warrants civil rights enforcement. And it is possible that, as the Bush administration asserts, discrimination against Christians has also received less attention from past administrations than it deserves. But there is ample evidence that the problem of racial discrimination continues to deny opportunity to millions of Americans. The Civil Rights Division is charged with addressing discrimination based on race, gender, nationality, disability, age and religion, as well as abusive practices by law enforcement officials. Rigorous enforcement in each of those areas is not a choice, but a responsibility of our federal government. But it is increasingly clear that the Civil Rights Division is not meeting its responsibility when it comes to racial equality.
It is true, of course, that every administration must make choices about the use of resources. It is also true, however, that past administrations have asked Congress for increases in the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement budget to address practical needs. An inspiring example at the state level is New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo who, soon after taking office, moved to double the size of his office’s Civil Rights Bureau. There seems little doubt that the U.S. Congress would authorize an increase in the federal Department of Justice budget to address adequately the full range of civil rights issues under the Department’s care.
Research compiled by The Opportunity Agenda shows that the evidence of continuing racial discrimination has mounted in recent years. For example, a 2003 study of temporary employment agencies in California found that these agencies preferred less qualified white applicants nearly three times as often as better qualified African-American applicants. A similar study in Milwaukee by sociologist Devah Pager trained African American and white college students to pose as equally-qualified job seekers, varying their race and whether or not they presented a (fictitious) criminal record. In tests in which African American and white auditors were assigned no criminal record, whites were about two and a half times more likely than their equally-qualified African American counterparts to be called back (34 percent to 14 percent). White auditors who presented criminal records were more likely to receive callbacks than African Americans who did not present criminal records (17 percent to 14 percent), leading Pager to conclude that “race continues to play a dominant role in shaping employment opportunities.”
Research finds similar results in housing, including staggering levels of housing discrimination facing African Americans displaced by Hurricane Katrina, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Despite these well-documented trends, the Justice Department has willfully backed away from its responsibility to address these pernicious violations of our laws and national values. The National Fair Housing Alliance’s 2006 fair housing trends report found that “although more than 3.7 million fair housing violations are committed each year, ... the Department of Justice filed only 31 fair housing cases in 2006 ... down from 53 in 2001.” The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that both civil and criminal actions by the department to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws have declined during this administration. The New York Times found that the division has “sharply reduced its efforts to combat voting rights plans that may dilute black electoral strength.” And departing career attorneys have said that, among other problematic practices, political appointees at the department actively discouraged them from filing hate crime prosecutions and other racial discrimination claims.
The Boston Globe reported last year that the administration has quietly filled the permanent ranks of Civil Rights Division lawyers (civil servants who have historically served with distinction through administrations of both parties) with lawyers who have “strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights.” And a new report from the Citizen’s Commission for Civil Rights finds, among other things, that the Division “has allowed partisan political concerns to influence its decision-making on enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.”
These developments should not go unchallenged. Congress should keep up the pressure on the department to fulfill its full enforcement responsibilities—House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers recently indicated an interest in future oversight hearings and investigation, which are warranted. And the next administration—whether Democratic or Republican—must bring a new attitude, resources, and resolve to the enterprise of ensuring equal opportunity throughout our country.