Op-Ed: Trump profoundly damaged our civil rights. Here’s how Biden can begin restoring them

The Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
Under President Trump, the Justice Department has initiated 60% fewer civil rights cases than the Obama administration did. Pictured: The Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget ordered federal agencies to “cease and desist” providing diversity training to federal employees, calling them “divisive, un-American propaganda sessions.” On top of that, President Trump tweeted that diversity training for federal employees was “a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue.”

It was yet another example of how, in the run-up to the November election, Trump isn’t using a dog whistle so much as a foghorn to stoke division and distrust along racial lines. But behind these desperate bids to mobilize his far-right base lurks an even more dangerous legacy — one that threatens to outlast the Trump presidency unless the next administration takes immediate action to correct course.

The Trump administration has been a wall-to-wall catastrophe for civil rights — for people of color, for people with disabilities, for LGBTQ Americans, and for everyone who believes it is the duty of government to protect the powerless. In agency after agency, Trump appointees have slashed civil rights budgets and staffing numbers, quashed investigations, stymied enforcement and rolled back protective orders at an unprecedented clip — leaving millions of Americans without recourse or resources to fight against discriminatory public policies and private-sector malfeasance.


Consider the Department of Justice, ordinarily the tip of the spear for federal civil rights enforcement. Under President Trump, the department has initiated 60% fewer civil rights cases than the Obama administration did — and 50% fewer than the George W. Bush administration. The agency shelvedinvestigations into police misconduct and issued new guidance that makes it virtually impossible for the federal government to enter into consent decrees with police departments that have exhibited patterns or practices of discrimination. And while white nationalist organizations have experienced explosive growth, the FBI has instead prioritized surveillance of civil rights activists, painting them as “Black identity extremists.”

A veteran of the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960s urges Portland protesters to focus on changing minds, not burning down buildings.

Sept. 27, 2020

These skewed priorities are reflected throughout the Trump administration. At the Department of Education, hundreds of disability rights complaints have been dismissed without investigation, and a longstanding civil rights appeals process was eliminated.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, early budget proposals to eliminate environmental justice programs rightly garnered headlines — while elsewhere in the agency, civil rights enforcement actions fell to their lowest level in at least a decade.

Although the Department of Health and Human Services has seen an increase in civil rights complaints, the Trump administration has repeatedly proposed budget cuts to the relevant offices while enacting broad religious exemptions that allow health professionals to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

And multiple agencies have taken profoundly troubling steps to undermine fair housing protections — an area where the president has a long history of alleged misconduct, since he and his father were sued by the Justice Department in the 1970s for discriminating against Black renters. The Treasury Department mothballed at least six investigations into discriminatory mortgage lending practices, ignoring staff recommendations that penalties be issued. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s decision to gut the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule has undermined half a century of anti-discrimination policies in the housing market — and provided fuel for anongoing series of racist tweets from the president.

And it’s clear that the Trump administration isn’t done yet. Recently, OMB’s Office of Informational and Regulatory Affairs — which normally reviews proposed regulations and doesn’t wade into enforcement — sent a memo explicitly encouraging federal agencies to clear enforcement actions with political appointees.


It will not be easy to undo the profound damage done to our nation’s civil rights laws. That’s why, if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are elected in November, I am hopeful they will take urgent action to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement and work to ensure every American is, at last, truly equal under the law and protected from discrimination.

Under a Biden-Harris administration, all federal departments and agencies should conduct an audit of civil rights complaints and enforcement actions — or, more commonly, inactions — during the Trump administration, so they can uncover the full extent of civil rights violations and identify ways to strengthen protections. These audits should be made public, so the American people know what happened and what will be done to fix it. And where laws were broken, former political appointees should be held accountable for their actions.

Meanwhile, Congress must considerably increase appropriations to fund civil rights offices and enforcement agencies, and rebuild their decimated workforces. Many talented, experienced career staff members were pushed out of the federal government by the Trump administration. Those who want to return should be encouraged to, but agencies should simultaneously recruit and train a new generation of public servants that reflects our nation’s diversity. The federal workforce — including civil rights offices — also deserve stronger whistleblower protections to shield them from political interference, so they can defend Americans’ rights and interests, no matter who sits in the White House.

And it isn’t enough to enforce our civil rights laws after they’ve been violated. We also need to invest up front in communities — reforming our criminal justice system, restoring fair housing protections, making environmental and climate justice a priority, and protecting the rights of all Americans from predatory and discriminatory practices. As a former community organizer, I can tell you that righting wrongs is good — but preventing them from happening in the first place is even better.

As my dear friend John Lewis, who died in July, said earlier this year: “A democracy cannot thrive where power remains unchecked and justice is reserved for a select few.” If Democrats win the White House in November, we cannot let four years of systematic neglect and abuse go unanswered — for everyone’s benefit we must make strengthening our civil rights agencies a priority.

Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat, represents California’s 37th District and chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.