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December 01, 2008

To: President Barack Obama From: Barbara L. Arnwine Subject: Civil Rights Agenda Recommendations for the New Administration

by Barbara R. Arnwine

Many years of dedicated struggle and sacrifice by civil rights and voting rights activists culminated in your historic election as forty-fourth president of the United States. Yet, ironically as your administration assumes power, it must address the shameful legacy of the Bush administration’s devastating anti-civil rights enforcement primarily at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), as well as throughout federal agencies with civil rights enforcement responsibility. As you face this task, I respectfully request your consideration of the following key civil rights recommendations specific to the Lawyers’ Committee’s expertise, which also reflect many priorities of the larger civil rights community.

Restoration of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division

As president, you have the unique opportunity to restore the Civil Rights Division of DOJ as the nation’s premier prosecutor of civil rights cases. The well-publicized politicization of both personnel actions and substantive decision making of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division have compromised the department’s credibility with both the public and the courts, and thus its ability to fulfill core civil rights responsibilities.

Fair and vigorous civil rights enforcement must be a top priority for the new attorney general and assistant attorney general for civil rights. In the first one hundred days, the new assistant attorney general should release the pending report of the inspector general on the Civil Rights Division concerning the hiring and internal operations of the division and take immediate steps to address problems revealed in that report. Additionally, the new assistant attorney general immediately should publicly state that the division’s first priority is fighting racial discrimination. It is also imperative that the assistant attorney general for civil rights engage in meaningful and frequent dialogue with the civil rights community.

Voting Rights

To promote the fundamental right to vote, please urge Congress to pass universal voter registration and anti-deceptive practice legislation. Voter registration remains the single greatest barrier to enfranchisement. According to the Census Bureau, approximately 25 percent of our country’s eligible voters are not registered. Universal voter registration legislation should include an affirmative duty of state governments to register all eligible citizens; permanent registration within states; and Election Day registration.

Traditionally disenfranchised groups are still targets of deceptive practices and intimidation as they attempt to vote. Although many deceptive practices have been documented, the DOJ has testified before Congress that these deceptive practices are not actionable under federal law. We expect your continued leadership to address these practices, as demonstrated in 2007 when you, along with Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), introduced S. 453, the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2007. The legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but not considered by the full Senate before the end of the 110th Congress. The House passed companion bill H.R. 1253 in 2007.

Educational Opportunity and Parental Empowerment

We urge your Department of Education to issue guidance to post-secondary institutions on implementing diversity measures in compliance with Grutter v. Bollinger , 539 U.S. 306 (2003), in which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the promotion of educational diversity by permitting post-secondary schools to consider race as one factor among several in a careful and individual assessment of each applicant. The department also should issue guidance for K–12 schools on ways to promote integration in the wake of recent desegregation cases ( Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 , 127 S.Ct. 2738 (2007)). In Parents Involved, the Court limited, but did not eliminate, voluntary desegregation programs at the K–12 level. Local school districts need specific guidance on what actions to promote desegregation remain permissible and your administration should take the lead on providing that guidance.

We also urge you to promote the importance of parental involvement in curtailing the huge dropout rate for Latino and African American youth and narrowing the achievement gap. The Lawyers’ Committee has established a Parental Empowerment Program, which is designed to promote paren tal responsibility and quality education by focusing on your theme that “programs alone can’t replace parents.” Your administration should support this proactive policy effort.


We encourage you to revive federal efforts to ensure the right of employees to earn a living in a workplace free of unlawful discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), DOJ, and the Department of Labor (DOL) must rededicate their offices to fulfilling the promise of our nation’s equal employment opportunity laws. For example, the artificially low number of pattern and practice race discrimination cases on the docket of the Employment Section of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division is indicative of the inappropriate abandonment of strong enforcement. Significant to the ability to bring discrimination cases is the collection of data, such as the race and salary information required in EEO-1 forms by the EEOC and the Equal Opportunity Survey by the DOL. It is imperative that these investigative tools be used in their full force to prevent employment discrimination.

We also encourage your continued support of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, ensuring that women and minorities suffering pay discrimination get their day in court.

Housing and Community Development

We seek your leadership reinstating vigorous enforcement of fair housing and fair lending laws by DOJ and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, including enforcement that relies on disparate impact analysis for proving violations of the Fair Housing Act. In this regard, a December 9, 2008, report issued by the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity provides in-depth information and recommendations and discusses the intersection of housing and lending inequities at the root of the current foreclosure crisis. We encourage you to continue to support legislation that would enable struggling homeowners facing foreclosure to seek relief in bankruptcy court.

Section 3 of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968, as amended, provides the legal basis for hiring low- income residents and contracting with community businesses in connection with the award of federal financial assistance for housing and community development. We recommend more aggressive monitoring, reporting, and enforcement of Section 3 obligations to significantly increase job and contracting opportunities for low-income residents in underserved communities.

Additionally, we urge increased funding for technical assistance through the Community Development Block Grant, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, and the Rural Housing and Economic Development Programs to expand the capacity of community-based development organizations, particularly in rural areas.

Environmental Justice

The Lawyers’ Committee has a special commitment to environmental justice and was instrumental in adoption of Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, in 1994. To reinvigorate this initiative, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act must be amended to provide that in private actions by citizens, a violation of Title VI can be proven through disparate impact analysis.

In addition, enactment of the Environmental Justice Act of 2007 would codify the executive order and provide significant impetus to advance environmental justice. We also seek your support of the Environmental Justice Renewal Act of 2007, which, if enacted, would require increased enforcement and educational efforts by federal agencies on environmental justice efforts. Finally, your announced emphasis on creating new “green” jobs should target minority communities, as well as others.

The Unfinished Business of the Gulf Coast Post-Katrina and Other Natural Disasters

The lack of federal leadership and assistance to those who were poor and African American in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina left our reputation in the world in tatters and an entire region of our nation in shambles. Years later, Americans of all races in the Gulf Coast continue to suffer from a negligible response by the federal government to the needs for housing, infrastructural redevelopment, and economic revitalization. We urge you to support legislation such as the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, which would create 100,000 jobs for Gulf Coast residents and evacuees to rebuild their communities, and the Gulf Coast Hurricane Recovery Act, which would provide housing relief for areas of the Gulf Coast affected by recent hurricanes. You should propose and lead a federally directed expansion of volunteer efforts, including a Civilian Conservation Corps to assist in rebuilding in the Gulf Coast. The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency should adopt evacuation and victim assistance procedures that do not discriminate against undocumented immigrants.

Building a More Perfect Union

In closing, the Lawyers’ Committee urges a civil rights agenda that is central to your vision of a united and equal society and that recognizes needs in other critical areas.

First among these are criminal justice initiatives, specifically those that mitigate the statutory disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenders, which has a disproportionate impact on minority citizens.

Second, beyond the urgent need to repair civil rights enforcement of DOJ, it is also crucial that all federal agencies tasked with civil rights enforcement duties be reviewed and restructured as necessary to ensure their ability to carry out these obligations. Special attention should be given to the Department of Agriculture’s historic record of discrimination against African American and Latino, Native American, and women farmers.

Third, increased funding for the Legal Services Corporation is needed to fill an enormous gap to educate and protect underserved American populations.

Fourth, the impact of inadequate health care on communities of color is devastating. Your support of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), especially without citizenship documentation requirements, will help meet the needs of underinsured persons.

Fifth, more attention must be given to the domestic and international epidemic of HIV/AIDS, which is disproportionately killing African Americans.

Finally, the United States must comply fully with the international human rights treaties to which it is a signatory, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. It can begin by addressing shortcomings identified in UN bodies’ most recent reviews of the status of U.S. compliance.

Thank you for considering these significant and ever- evolving initiatives. By making major advancement on these priorities, you and your administration will rejuvenate our nation’s stature and leadership role worldwide by making equality and opportunity the centerpiece of the role of the federal government. We encourage you to honor the aspirations and sacrifices of our forbears by making these priorities the heart and soul of your administration’s quest to achieve “a more perfect union.”

Barbara R. Arnwine

Barbara R. Arnwine is the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. The author wishes to acknowledge the civil rights concerns that are covered elsewhere in this magazine and are beyond the word limits of this article.