Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Civil Rights Law Enforcement: A Time for Healing

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Civil Rights Law Enforcement: A Time for Healing

Article excerpt


Bill Clinton will not be remembered in history as a President who followed any particular philosophical star. Generally, he is considered a moderate or pragmatist. But in one major area of public policy, Clinton tenaciously and consistently pursued a hard-core left-wing agenda: civil rights. Americans will pay the costs of that agenda for years to come, in terms of racial division, weakened civil rights law enforcement, and most tragic of all, missed opportunities.

No one could have predicted such a sad debacle. Nothing in Clinton's background suggested a particular passion for civil rights issues. During the campaign and following his election, he chastised left-wing elements of his party for racial divisiveness. He accorded a low priority to filling key civil rights posts.

But at some point, Clinton apparently calculated that he could purchase quietude from the party's often-restive left wing cheaply and effectively by turning over to it the entire federal civil rights law enforcement arsenal and tenaciously promoting racial preferences. In a sense, the gambit worked--Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume, and other establishment civil rights leaders became the Clinton Administration's faithful cheerleaders, and Clinton was never seriously challenged from the left, despite abandoning much of its goals in other areas of public policy.

But the real-world costs of Clinton's deal with the left have been tremendous. By pursuing race-based civil rights policies, the federal government under Clinton continued to categorize and divide Americans along racial lines in areas touching the lives of everyone, from voting to education to employment to government contracts to housing. At the same time, the Clinton Administration failed to tap into and encourage a burgeoning consensus that racial preferences are wrong, but that true "affirmative action" is necessary to help the most disadvantaged members of our society, who are disproportionately minority. It was one of the few times that Clinton willfully rebuked, rather than adhered himself to, a strong popular consensus on a major policy issue.

Moreover, by turning over the federal law enforcement apparatus to a bunch of ideologues, Clinton inflicted serious damage on its effectiveness and credibility. Clinton's Justice Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission often resembled a Court TV version of the Keystone Cops. Not only did the agencies lose a remarkable number of cases, but they were repeatedly rebuked and sanctioned by federal courts. The agencies also pursued illegal remedies, coercion, and intimidation, weakening the rule of law that is so critical for effective and enduring protection of civil rights.

The imperative for the next Administration is simple yet urgent: to effectuate a long-overdue healing process. Not only must it bridge the racial divide among Americans, but it must also repair the damage inflicted on civil rights law enforcement during the Clinton Administration.


Obviously, civil rights policies will be dictated to some extent by the philosophical predilections of any particular Administration. Democrats and Republicans differ in their approach to civil rights policies,(1) and any Administration is entitled, within certain boundaries, to implement its civil rights vision through policy.

But the boundaries are important: every civil rights law enforcement official must take an oath to uphold the Constitution and the civil rights laws he or she will enforce.(2) That oath obligates the official to act in conformity with the rule of law,(3) not to behave like an ideological zealot possessed of a vast federal litigation arsenal. That is the central lesson of the Clinton Administration's civil rights debacle.

The next Administration's compass on civil rights can largely be taken from the preceding Administration's mistakes. …

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