Manning Marable “Along the Color Line” January, 2006

In July, 2005, Mark A. Brittingham, the Associate General Counsel of Southern Illinois University, received an ominous letter from the U.S. Justice Department. The letter informed Brittingham that the Justice Department intended to “investigate the employment practices” of Southern Illinois University, “in order to determine whether the University is engaged in a pattern or practice of employment discrimination in violation of Section 707 of Title Seven of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The Bush Justice Department’s concern? That Southern Illinois University had maintained “several fellowship programs that are open only to individuals who are black, Hispanic, American Indian or Asian, and by recruiting and hiring minorities and women for selected faculty positions.” The letter was signed by Acting Assistant Attorney General Bradley J. Schlozman, and David I. Palmer, Chief of Justice’s Employment Litigation Section. Southern Illinois University requested more time to “consider appropriate modifications” in its diversity initiatives. But that didn’t satisfy the Bush Justice Department, which claimed there was hard evidence of “bias against whites.” Three small scholarship programs were specifically targeted. In one program initiated in 2000, the “Graduate Dean’s Fellowship,” which was designed “for women and traditionally underrepresented students who have overcome social, cultural or economic conditions,” the recipients between 2000 and 2004 had included 16 white women, 7 African

ACL January 2006/Page 2 Americans, and four Latinos. Since no white males had been selected, the Justice Department retorted, there was the possibility of “bias” against white males! I think it’s important to remember why the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed in the first place. For over three centuries, African Americans were deliberately excluded from full political, educational and social rights, first under slavery, and then under Jim Crow segregation. A massive protest movement for civil rights, in which black and white Americans alike sacrificed their lives, forced the U.S. government to outlaw legal racial segregation only in 1964. Only 8 percent of Southern Illinois’s 5,500 graduate students are black and Latino, well before their percentage of the state’s population. Yet now the Justice Department, which was originally charged with enforcing the Civil Rights Act, is suing institutions that maintain modest programs to enhance their racial and ethnic diversity. The Southern Illinois University controversy highlights the “dismantling of justice” – the pathetic retreat from effective civil rights enforcement under President George W. Bush’s administration. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “since the Bush administration took office in 2001, racial and gender discrimination prosecutions by the Civil Rights Division have declined by 40 percent. Career lawyers in the department are claiming that political appointees are now calling all the shots and are not consulting the professionals with vast experience in the field.” As a result, in 2005 almost 20 percent of the Civil Rights Division’s attorneys have resigned or sought to be transferred. Bush’s first Attorney General, former Missouri Senator John Ashcroft, was well known for his deep hostility toward African Americans’ interests. Indeed, this was why

ACL January 2006/Page 3 massive numbers of Missouri blacks turned out to defeat Ashcroft’s reelection to the Senate in 2000. Once Ashcroft became Attorney General, he was determined to destroy the progressive legacy of civil rights enforcement, by any means necessary. In 2001, there were 83 prosecutions initiated by the Justice Department for civil rights cases involving racial and gender discrimination. By fiscal year 2005, civil rights prosecutions had fallen off to thirty-five – and some of these involved fictive cases of “discrimination against whites.” Ashcroft was equally determined to roll back the Justice Department’s enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Under President Clinton in 1999, the Civil Rights Division filed 22 friend-of-the-court briefs involving civil rights violations. By 2005, only three similar briefs were filed. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the first Latino to hold the position, has continued Ashcroft’s assault on minority civil rights and voting rights enforcement. In one recent outrageous instance, in August 2005, the Justice Department barred its own staff attorneys from offering recommendations in major Voting Rights cases. When staff attorneys criticized a Texas redistricting scheme engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay that would reduce minority representation, Gonzales muzzled his own attorneys. When the Washington Post documented this story on December 10, 2005, a Justice Department spokesman, Eric Holland, weakly asserted: “The opinions and expertise of the career lawyers are valued and respected . . .” On December 1, Congressman John Conyers, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, denounced what he described as “the politicization of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5, preclearance process for the Texas redistricting plan.” Conyers

ACL January 2006/Page 4 demanded a formal investigation of the Department of Justice’s Voting Rights Section. Despite Bush’s assertions in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina crisis that “I’m not a racist,” the facts from his Justice Department speak for themselves. Because when it comes to civil rights enforcement, Bush, Ashcroft and Gonzales desperately want blacks to once again go to the back of the bus.

Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of Public Affairs, History and AfricanAmerican Studies, and Director of the Center for Contemporary Black History, Columbia University, New York. “Along the Color Line” regularly appears in hundreds of newspapers worldwide. “Along the Color Line” is available at

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