Tin Ear on Civil Rights

WOULD someone - preferably George Bush himself - please state clearly for the record the Bush administration's strategy on civil rights. If, as it's been said, people are policy, the administration's approach appears to be that old oxymoron, ``benign neglect.'' Disquiet arises from reports that the administration has settled on a New York lawyer and former state senator, John R. Dunne, as its leading candidate to head the Justice Department's civil rights division. Mr. Dunne may be perfectly suited for any number of posts, but his qualifications for this highly symbolic as well as substantive job are not apparent.

The president seems sympathetic to the rights of minorities. In his touch-all-bases fashion, Bush has dutifully met with civil rights leaders. But so far, sympathy hasn't translated into action.

The first nominee for the civil rights post, William Lucas, a black, was rejected by the Senate for lack of experience, even though in his own career Mr. Lucas has risen impressively from humble origins. There was an element of tokenism in the Lucas nomination, but his background would have provided a degree of sensitivity to minority concerns.

By contrast, Dunne appears to have rarely grappled with the problems of minorities and the disadvantaged, either in his life or his political career. New York civil rights activists say he has been invisible in their world.

Government civil rights posts shouldn't be the special preserve of minority activists; nor to be qualified need a candidate subscribe to the specific legislative and legal agenda laid out by the NAACP. It may well be that the nation's chief civil rights concerns have moved from the legal arena to the economic one, from ``rights'' to opportunity.

Yet it's surely possible to be conservative, skeptical of affirmative action, but still genuinely committed to helping the victims of historical discrimination. Jack Kemp proves this. In the wide GOP ranks, is there no Jack Kemp to lead the administration's civil rights efforts? Or does the administration simply not care enough to find that person?

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