WHY IT MATTERS: CIVIL RIGHTS

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by Jesse Washington

The issue:

What, exactly, is discrimination, and what should be done to fight it? This election offers choices on the answers.

In areas such as mortgages, voter identification and immigration enforcement, the presidential candidates differ over how to use laws that guarantee equality and how far the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which exerts strong influence on issues of race and ethnicity, should go to ensure all Americans are treated fairly.

WhyItMatters
FIGHTING DISCRIMNATION–Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the League of Women Voters National Convention in Washington June 11. What, exactly, is discrimination, and what should be done to fight it? This election offers choices on the answer. In areas such as mortgages, voter identification and immigration enforcement, the presidential candidates differ over how to use laws that guarantee equality and how far the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which exerts strong influence on issues of race and ethnicity, should go to ensure all Americans are treated fairly. The election also will shape the Justice Department’s actions in continuing court cases that challenge voter ID laws passed in some Republican-led states. Opponents contend such laws unfairly discourage minority voting. Under Holder, the Justice Department has used lawsuits based on statistics to hold banks’ feet to the fire on how they lend money to Hispanics and Black people. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The election also will shape the Justice Department’s actions in continuing court cases that challenge voter ID laws in some Republican-led states. Opponents contend such laws unfairly discourage minority voting.

Where they stand:

Under President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, the civil rights division has aggressively prosecuted cases where statistics show that blacks and Hispanics are hit harder than whites. These cases include accusations that banks used discriminatory lending practices and that states passed voter identification laws that would keep a disproportionate percentage of minorities from voting.

Republican Mitt Romney agrees with very little that Holder has done. He supports voter ID laws, saying they prevent fraud and don’t discriminate. Under recent Republican presidents, the Justice Department has limited its enforcement to cases with evidence of intentional discrimination—not where statistics show that minorities were broadly disadvantaged by a particular practice.

Why it matters:

The philosophy of the current civil rights division is that race and ethnicity still have a major impact on American opportunity and that statistics can prove discrimination. Romney has not made his beliefs clear, but conservatives generally believe that race matters far less than individual responsibility and that discrimination is proved by actions—not numbers.

Under Holder, the Justice Department has used lawsuits based on statistics to hold banks’ feet to the fire on how they lend money to Hispanics and black people. For example, it obtained a $335 million settlement in a lawsuit that accused Countrywide Financial Corp. of charging more than 200,000 qualified Hispanic and black borrowers higher rates than white borrowers with similar credit profiles. And a settlement with Wells Fargo Bank provides $125 million for borrowers who were allegedly steered into subprime mortgages or who allegedly paid higher fees and rates than white borrowers.

On the flip side, Holder’s Justice Department has been accused by two former civil rights division lawyers of going too far in the other direction by refusing to prosecute minorities when they discriminate against others. They point to the decision by the Justice Department shortly after Obama’s election to seek a narrower civil injunction than the Bush administration had against the tiny New Black Panther Party, which was accused of intimidating white voters at one Philadelphia precinct in 2008.

In any event, a more conservative Justice Department could set a higher bar for action against discrimination—it would be unlikely to sue without evidence of intentional bias, instead of statistical disparities.

A Romney administration also would be likely to view measures such as Arizona’s tough immigration law more sympathetically. The Supreme Court struck down major parts of the law but upheld the provision requiring police, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of those suspected of being in the country illegally.

Critics say that will lead to racial profiling of Hispanics, a point that resonates with Obama. “No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like,” he said. Romney saw the ruling differently: “Given the failure of the immigration policy of this country, I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states.”

EDITOR’S NOTE _ When you vote for Democrat Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney in November, you’ll be voting for more than a president. You’ll be casting a ballot for and against a checklist of policies that touch your life and shape the country you live in.

It can be hard to see, through the fog of negative ads, sound bite zingers and assorted other campaign nasties, that the election is a contest of actual ideas. But it is always so. A candidate’s words connect to deeds in office.

Roll back to 2008. Obama was the presidential candidate who promised to get the country on a path to health insurance for all. He delivered. If you haven’t noticed one way or another, soon you will.

And back to 2000. George W. Bush ran on a platform of big tax cuts. That’s precisely what the country got. A decade later, taxes are lower than they otherwise would have been.

That’s not to say you can count on Romney’s checklist or Obama’s to come into full being. You sure can’t.

By nature and necessity, the presidency is in large part a creature of compromise and improvisation. The unforeseen happens (the terrorist attacks), or circumstances change (the December 2007-June 2009 recession), or things that the candidate sets out to do run into a buzz saw in Congress (way too many examples to mention). That’s why promises are broken, priorities shift and intentions get swept away by the fistful.

Even so, you get what you vote for, probably about as often as not. And a lot of what you get, you will feel in a personal way, for better or worse, no matter how distant Washington seems from your world.

The wars called away people in your orbit, if not in your family. The spending that each candidate wants to do—Romney vows military expansion, Obama would put more into education, for starters—is bound to benefit many livelihoods in some fashion, at the risk of even deeper national debt. And read their fine print: Medicare won’t be the same in the years ahead. Perhaps not Social Security, either. (There’s that national debt, after all.)

Across the spectrum of issues, Obama and Romney have drawn contrasts and telegraphed divergent ways for the nation to go.

You can’t believe everything you hear. But you can believe enough to know that Tuesday, Nov. 6, is a true day of decision.

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