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Dr. 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
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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


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
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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
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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 African-

American 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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