Clarence Thomas: A Biography

By Andrew Peyton Thomas | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWELVE
Call It Stormy Monday

The Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education was a double provocation to the conservatives who dominated the incoming Reagan administration. Established by President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress, the department had spun off from the erstwhile Department of Health, Education and Welfare, a behemoth that was the very embodiment of Great Society liberalism. Reagan viewed the new department as a further distension of an already unwieldy federal bureaucracy. During the campaign, he pledged to seek its abolition.

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) was offensive to conservatives for other reasons. While conservatives challenged the very existence of the Department of Education, they questioned the aims of its unit for civil rights enforcement. OCR was responsible for safeguarding the civil rights of students at educational institutions that received federal financial support. Mostly, these rights arose from Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal civil rights statutes established in the 1970s. The office investigated complaints of discrimination and conducted inquiries to monitor compliance with civil rights laws. OCR referred violations to the Department of Justice for litigation and potential termination of federal funding. Within this broad ambit fell a myriad of public policy concerns, from desegregation at Southern colleges to bilingual education to special education of disabled children in elementary and secondary schools.

Under Carter, OCR had pursued a liberal civil rights agenda. State colleges and universities in the South were pressed to increase the percentage of students who were black. Affirmative action and racial quotas were encouraged accordingly. Reagan had run for president on a platform of eliminating such racial preferences. Indeed, Theodore White, the presidential historian, judged that popular resentment over racial

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