Is the Reagan administration taking a ''bum rap'' on civil rights?
Are critics off-base who accuse the White House of less-than-vigorous support for equal opportunity in education and employment for the poor, women, and racial minorities?
William Bradford Reynolds, who heads the Justice Department's civil rights division, insists that critics have misread Reagan policies and interpreted them as detrimental to the cause of equal protection under the law.
Addressing a house full of lawyers and judges here at what was billed as the ''showcase'' panel at the American Bar Association's annual conclave, Mr. Reynolds outlined the administration's stand of ''race neutrality'' which, he said, is an effective way to combat discrimination.
''In the area of equal employment opportunity, we have rejected the use of racial quotas and other preferential techniques, relying instead on injunctive relief mandating racially neutral employment decisions and enhanced recruitment efforts designed to attract greater numbers of qualified minorities into the work force,'' Reynolds said.
No affirmative action? No job quotas, but instead stepped-up recruitment? To civil rights advocates here, this was gobbledygook which simply spells retrenchment and perhaps even a dereliction of the duty of the Justice Department to vigorously oppose discriminatory practicies.
Even as the Justice Department official spoke, the administration was announcing one of its strongest stands against forced busing for school desegregation. It asked a federal appeals court in Louisiana to scale back a plan in East Baton Rouge, calling busing ''a failed experiment'' that places a ''burden on children. . . .'' At issue is a long-standing desegregation suit filed by blacks against a school district which has 59,000 pupils, almost half of them black.
''In school desegregation cases, our remedial formula emphasizes desegregation techniques that promote voluntary integrative student transfers and at the same time enhance the quality of public education,'' Reynolds explained.
John Shattuck, directory of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) legislative office, says the overall dispute embraces more than busing or jobs for minorities. Mr. Shattuck challenges the administration's contention that many civil rights issues should be resolved by state legislatures or Congress -- instead of the federal courts. He says that anti-discriminatory laws must be enforced even if public sentiment is against them.
One lawyer here suggested that the election of a conservative president in 1980 is being interpreted by some as a mandate to ''turn the clock back on civil rights.''
Elaine R. Jones, council to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, stressed the necessity of affirmative action to put have-nots on a more even footing with the haves.
''Sometimes it takes a racially biased preference,'' she says. ''In order to treat some people equally, we must treat them differently.''
Civil rights is not a subject for the ballot box or public opinion polls,'' Miss Jones says. ''It's a matter of law and conscience.''
And Warren H. Dawson, president of the National Bar Association (NBA), a group of black lawyers, warns that civil rights should not be chilled by political wind. ''The rights of minorities in this nation are constant. Administrations come and go,'' he points out.
Judge Shirley M. Hufstedler, a former US secretary of education, stresses that ''racial equality'' -- as advocated by the Reagan administration -- won't work because Americans are ''not born equal.''
''We need to open the door of opportunity to everyone (through affirmative action) - not simply pray for it on a voluntary basis,'' Judge Hufsteadler says.
A Carter appointee and supporter of federal funds for education, she says that slashes in money for programs that help the poor and minorities is a form of discrimination.
Judge Hufstedler says that in the area of civil rights, only the courts can ''protect the minority from an overreaching majority.''
Reynolds stresses the Reagan administration is sensitive to the goals of civil rights groups. But he reinforces the position that ''affirmative action programs based on quotas are in conflict with civil rights and the Constitution of the US.''
The American public seems to agree with him only in part. A recent Harris poll indicated that 69 percent of those interviewed support affirmative action programs for women and minorities in employment if there are no rigid quotas.