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Civil Rights Under Reagan.

Civil Rights Under Reagan

Detlefsen's concise and provocative study makes a strong case that, for all its sound and fury, the Reagan administration barely altered affirmative action as it is practiced in corporations, universities, or even in the federal government.

During the 1980s, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission continued to file discrimination cases, much as it ever did. The Office of Be eral Contract Compliance continued to demand that federal contractors submit affirmative action plans. And the Education Department's mammoth Office of Civil Rights pretty much stayed as liberal as ever. In one of Detlefsen's many telling examples, he shows how, even as late as Reagan's second term, the Office of Civil Rights was engaging in decidedly un-Reaganesque policies--like filing a complaint against the University of California at Berkeley, of all places, for having "sexist" language in its course catalog.

It's a paradox. Why didn't this conservative administration make more headway, especially since p olls show Americans leer of and even hostile towards affirmative action? Detlefsen, a political scientist who is sympathetic to the administration's self-styled "color-blind" philosophy, cites the familiar tendencies of bureaucracies to stay the course no matter who is at the helm. Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds tried to steer his Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in a new direction. But career attorneys, Detlefsen reports, would openly cheer when Reynolds, as he so often did, lost cases, Detlefsen, though, thinks he's found another explanation for the Reagan administration's failure. The culprit: a doctrinaire, liberal "civil rights ideology" that runs Washington.

To be generous, there is some truth in this neoconservative broadside. There are a lot of liberals, and even Republicans, in positions of power who reflexively support anything called "civil rights"--even when it goes far beyond nondiscrimination to include dubious policies like racial preferences for Asian-Indians. But if the Reagan administration fell on its face, don't blame some liberal bogyman. After all, the Reagan administration steamroled liberals on everything from defense spending to deregulation. No, it failed on civil rights because even people who are wary of affirmative action couldn't trust this administration to do the right thing. Never did it offer the necessary reassurance that it reaslly cared about the plight of minorities.

Color-blind antipoverty programs were cut; black leaders were shunned. The Jack Kemp-style conservative empowerment agenda, with its enterprise zones and housing vouchers, might have provided some limited benefit to minorities and political benefit to an administration said to be lacking compassion. But those novel ideas failed to receive sufficient backing from the likes of Sam Pierce and wound up largely moribund. Little wonder, then, that when the Reagan crew talked "color-blind," many heard a less benign message: "Get the blacks."

Reagan had a chance to build credibility when he appointed men and women with impeccable civil rights credentials, like my friend Civil Rgiths Commissioner Morris Abram, a Democrat who, among other noble deeds, served as Martin Luther King Jr.'s lawyer and chaired the United Negro College Fund. But his presence, and that of others, was often overshadowed by a cast of characters, like Ed Meese, who managed to be at once buffoonish and mean-spirited. Detlefsen seems not to consider this. In fact, he all but applauds the take-no-prisoners style of one of thhe administration's greater embarrassments, Clarence Pendleton, the late Civil Rights Commission chairman.

For those of us who worked at the commission during the eighties, the Pendleton we knew was n instantly likable, sweet, and generous fellow. But in front of a microphone he could be a real curmudgeon. Yet Detlefsen, who relies heavily on secondary sourcs instead of real-life interviews, elevates the black Republican into a savvy politico capable of great thoughts and great oration. When Pendleton made his notorious remark likening affirmative action to a "plantation," he was, swoons Detlefsen, "acting on his belief that as a prerequisite to persuading ordinary blacks to abandon the politics of racial preference, he would first need to discredit the icons in whom that idea was embodied." Such gruffness, Detlefsen says, was an "idiom" that "ordinary blacks" understood. Detlefsen's account is not only patronizing but wrong. Pendleton's likening of civil rights leaders not to mistaken comrades in a shared struggle but to "charlatans" was widely seen as pigheaded by both blacks and whites (be they ordinary or extraordinary).

Detlefsen is probably right that affirmative action and a whole host of race-conscious policies are woven into the country's politics. The only chance for reform, he suggests, is the Rehnquist Court. Perhaps. But it's possible, too, that the excesses of affirmative action--such as set-asides for wealthy Cubans or lower college admissions standards, which do minorities no service--could be curbed politically, through legislation, regulation, and a bully pulpit. But it would take a very different kind of president than Tonald Reagan. Reevaluating affirmative action requires a leader who will challenge civil rights orthodoxy and display an equally fierce commitment to alleviating poverty. A president who did that might also begin to heal the racial fractures that divide the country. He or she could begin to assemble the great populist coalition of blacks and whites that is the stuff of Democratic dreams. Come to think of it, a president who did all that would be pretty terrific.
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Author:Cooper, Matthew
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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