Bush and Civil Rights: Words Matter, but Actions Talk

What exactly is President Bush trying to achieve on civil rights?

Against the backdrop of the racial controversy that cost Trent Lott (R-Miss.) his job as Senate majority leader, Bush’s own intentions have come under closer scrutiny. But the president has sent such mixed signals that some critics believe he’s playing a double game -- moderate on decisions that can be traced directly to him and much more conservative on judicial appointments that will profoundly affect the reach of civil rights law, but only gradually and far away from the White House.

Bush drew praise even from his staunchest critics in the traditional civil rights community for his strong condemnation of Lott’s wink toward segregation. Indeed, while the White House always said publicly that Bush didn’t want Lott to resign, the president’s sharp rebuke during a speech in Philadelphia probably did more to doom the Mississippi senator than anything else that happened since Lott’s remarks at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party Dec. 5.

But since Bush’s speech, the liberal civil rights community has repeatedly insisted that the president’s stirring words in defense of equal opportunity needed to be measured against his actions. Just minutes before Lott stepped down Friday, a coalition of civil rights groups held a news conference in Washington to pound at that message.


Conservatives rightly argue that support for the agenda of the liberal civil rights community isn’t the only measure of commitment to equal opportunity. But it’s reasonable for the civil rights groups to insist that a president’s actions should always be weighed more heavily than his words.

So far, Bush has moved cautiously on the civil rights issues most directly under his control. He has appointed conservatives to most key civil rights positions, and liberals charge that the administration isn’t enforcing the laws as aggressively as Bill Clinton did when he was president.

But Bush’s record hasn’t generated the intense conflict that characterized the liberal response to the enforcement of the civil rights laws under Ronald Reagan, and even Bush’s father. William L. Taylor, chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a leading liberal group, says that Bush’s record shows “a policy that is largely inert, not moving forward, and in a few areas is regressing.” Considering the source, that’s mild criticism.

Nor has Bush moved to retrench the key federal programs that promote affirmative action -- policies meant to expand opportunities for minorities in hiring and government contracting. For years, conservative thinkers have viewed these programs as unfair to whites and counterproductive -- a group entitlement that exacerbates social divisions.

But Bush has made no effort to repeal the executive order requiring federal contractors to establish goals and timetables for hiring women and minorities. Conservatives have long accused that program, which affects fully one-fifth of all workers in America, of encouraging quotas. Nor has the administration retrenched the programs providing minorities preferences in federal contracting. In all, Bush has done little to disturb the “mend it, don’t end it” balance on federal affirmative action programs that Clinton established in 1995.

Likewise, even before Lott, the administration was hesitant about joining a lawsuit opposing racial preferences in admissions at the University of Michigan now heading toward the Supreme Court. After Lott, officials say, it’s even less likely that Bush will use the suit to argue for a sweeping rollback of affirmative action.

Bush has had such a hands-off policy on these issues that conservatives are starting to grumble. “Conservatives are going to be very disappointed if two years from now there hasn’t been any positive movement,” says Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative group.

Clegg probably shouldn’t hold his breath. While Bush has always declared himself against quotas and preferences, he’s never shown any enthusiasm for direct combat on this front. His calculation seems to be that conflict over affirmative action would eclipse efforts to reach minority voters on other issues, such as education and homeownership. “Once you enter this thing,” one Bush political advisor says, “it’s hard to move the ball on anything else.”

But liberal groups take little comfort in Bush’s cautious approach to direct action. Their fear is that Bush is filling the federal courts with conservative judges who will reshape the civil rights laws in ways he wouldn’t risk through executive or legislative initiatives that carry his fingerprints.

It’s not an unreasonable fear. Many of Bush’s judicial nominees have records on civil rights much more conservative than the views Bush has expressed. Civil rights groups argue that Bush appellate court nominees such as Carolyn Kuhl, Jeffrey Sutton and Charles W. Pickering Sr. have displayed a determination to narrow the way civil rights laws are enforced.

All of these nominations will generate fireworks in the new year (especially if Bush fulfills his promise to renominate Pickering, whom the Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee rejected last year largely around accusations of racial insensitivity). But this conflict will really come to a head if Bush receives an opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court justice.

“That’s the big one,” insists Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group. “If they get a firm [conservative] Supreme Court majority, it will render the progressive agenda moot for decades. This is the whole ballgame for them. That’s why they are willing to make compromises legislatively or in the executive branch.”

Bush is under no obligation to support Neas’ agenda on civil rights. But voters have a right to demand accountability from elected officials. If Bush wants to roll back affirmative action, it’s hard to explain his executive actions; if he doesn’t, it’s hard to explain his court nominations.

Bush is sending dissonant signals, perhaps intentionally. But in the end, it’s his decisions on the courts that will speak loudest. Words matter, but words fade. When he condemns Lott, Bush is writing in sand. When he picks judges, he is carving in granite.


Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at: