Bush Rated High on Accessibility, Low on Getting Things Done
Civil Rights Progress: an Unfinished Agenda
WASHINGTON — DURING his first year in office, George Bush has created a markedly different atmosphere for race relations than did his predecessor. Black leaders continue to find his White House accessible and responsive. The black public approves of his job performance at a rate close to 60 percent, according to several polls taken in the fall.
But on the cornerstone issue of civil rights, a wide consensus among lawyers and activists holds that the Bush administration has departed more in style than substance from Reagan-era confrontation over affirmative action and race-conscious remedies for past discrimination.
The past year has been an unsettling one for civil rights activists. President Reagan's influence has been felt through his Supreme Court appointments, as a series of court decisions have drawn some sharp limits on the use of racial quotas and minority set-asides.
Under Bush, some lawyers are beginning to see more-aggressive federal action on civil rights cases, especially in the area of housing discrimination. But most say that the Bush administration has made few substantial shifts from the Reagan course.
Ralph Neas, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, gives the president ``high marks on accessibility, tone, rhetoric.'' But overall, he says, ``the Bush administration's record on civil rights has been disappointing.''
Many black leaders echo Jesse Jackson's comments at a Monitor lunch in Washington in November.
``We would have thought Bush would put the brakes on Reagan's tracks,'' he said. ``But so far, he has put the grease on Reagan's tracks.''
Hope springs eternal, however, in the congenial atmosphere of the Bush administration.
On Tuesday, Bush invited more than 125 civil rights leaders to the White House for the signing ceremony of his Martin Luther King Day proclamation and he promised to use his ``bully pulpit'' to denounce bigotry and bring to justice those responsible for recent bombings against civil rights figures.
The president met with black leaders in November to hear a set of their proposals, then instructed his Cabinet members to meet with them as well, according to John Jacob, president of the National Urban League. These meetings are now being arranged.
``While we do not know yet what that will result in,'' Mr. Jacob told reporters this week, ``we do know that access is now available to the president and his Cabinet.''
These kinds of meetings and statements are largely symbolic, but they amount to the president's most potent tools in race relations, says Howard University political scientist Alvin Thornton.
``The president - who he meets with symbolically, the words he uses - defines the way we see ourselves,'' Dr. Thornton says. This is especially true at a time when race relations are at ``a very, very problematic stage,'' in Dr. Thornton's view, with a subtle distance growing between blacks and whites.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment of black leaders and civil rights activists with Bush has been his quiet response to the Supreme Court decisions that have narrowed the uses of racial quotas. While Congress is drafting legislation now to counter the decisions, the White House has shown no interest yet in new law to counter the court.
The White House also made few friends in the black community, with its nomination of William Lucas as assistant attorney general for civil rights. Mr. Lucas is black and a convert to Republicanism with a career in law enforcement. Lucas's lack of concern over the Supreme Court rulings was decisive in turning some key votes from him in his Senate confirmation proceedings, and he was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The White House has fared better with other appointments of blacks to high-level posts, considering the small pool of black Republicans to draw from. Of 519 people Bush has named to top jobs that require Senate confirmation, 42, or 8 percent, have been black.
These numbers do not include high-level White House staff jobs like that of Condoleezza Rice, a black woman who is director of Soviet and Eastern European affairs on the National Security Council staff.
One of the most hospitable Bush Cabinet members to the black community is Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp. He has been distracted, however, by leftover scandals at his agency from the Reagan administration.
``Kemp said good things, but it's not matched by concrete actions,'' Thornton says.
Housing is an area, however, where this administration shows signs of aggressively pursuing remedies to racial discrimination.
``Housing is the bright spot of the Bush civil rights record right now,'' says John Relman of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Both HUD and Justice Department officials have shown a strong interest in aggressive enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, he notes.
Under President Reagan, Attorney General Edwin Meese, and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights William Bradford Reynolds, the administration clearly favored colorblind policy and supported race-based remedies such as quotas only where specific racial inequities could be shown.
Justice Department spokeswoman Deborah Burstion-Wade denies that any shift or change in policy has occurred under Bush, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, and Acting Assistant Attorney General James Turner.
``Any change would be in the outreach or dialogue with the civil rights community,'' she says.
Some civil rights attorneys see it differently.
``It is clear that Thornburgh is not anything at all like Meese,'' says Richard Seymour of the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. He notes several Justice Department opinions recently that have favored a relatively liberal use of race-conscious remedies in some discrimination cases - liberal in the new climate after the recent court decisions.
Overall, lawyers cite an atmosphere in the Justice Department of greater professionalism and less ideology than under Reagan, even if the policies have not changed markedly.
The new nominee as assistant attorney general for civil rights, John Dunne, is still undergoing his background check by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and civil rights activists have no reading yet on him. The post is a politically sensitive one for black Americans, however.