The Trump-Pence Administration is launching an effort to weaken the civil rights enforcement mechanisms in the Department of Justice (DOJ) Offices of Civil Rights (OCR) in each of the federal agencies.
Sounding an alarm, activists and groups representing Blacks, labor, LGBT, disabled and women are calling for an effort to fight back against the Trump Administration’s efforts.
The White House’s moves would restrict the roles of various federal agencies which monitor discrimination against citizens based on race, gender, sexual orientation on employment or participation in contracting and other issues.
Virginia Congressman Robert Scott, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, said, “Looking at the Trump Administration actions so far and enforcement and budget, it seems civil rights is not a priority.”
Scott said the Trump Administration has curtailed grants which would give funding and technical assistance to local school districts seeking to desegregate their classrooms.
Many schools districts which applied for the grants (totalling $12 million) were told by Trump’s Department of Education that they would not be receiving them, Scott said.
He said he and other Democratic lawmakers are concerned that the Trump Administration is seeking to combine the Labor Department’s Office of Compliance with the EEOC.
These two agencies have different roles, he said. First, the Labor Department’s Office of Compliance is assigned the job of assuring compliance with federal law barring employment discrimination.
On the other hand, the EEOC acts on complaints filed by individuals and then pursues investigation and correction.
Opponents of the Trump Administration note Trump is using political appointees hostile to the purposes of civil rights, along with budget reductions that reduce staffing and other resources needed to achieve their goals.
For instance, the administration has proposed to disband a Labor Department division which investigates discrimination among federal contractors.
According to the administration’s 2018 budget plan, the move would alter the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.
The agency, now home to 600 employees, would be folded into another government agency in the name of cost-cutting.
At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), its new leaders have proposed eliminating the agency’s environmental justice program which addresses pollution that poses health threats, specifically concentrated in minority communities.
Recently after 20 years of service, Mustafa Ali, the senior advisor and assistant for environmental justice for EPA, resigned after the administration’s effort to place tighter reins on his office.
That program provides funds and technical assistance to residents who are confronted with local hazards such as leaking oil tanks or emissions from chemical plants.
In another case, at the Department of Education (DOE), its Office of Civi Rights (OCR) which has investigated thousands of complaints of racial and gender bias cases over the years in public schools divisions, is being reduced. The OCR also sets new policy for colleges looking into charges of sexual assault and harassment.
The move reduces the number of investigations and limits travel to school districts to perform investigative work.
The Trump Administration also has been seeking to curtail the progress the Obama Administration made to help Gay people.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has revoked a rule ensuring that transgender people can stay at sex-segregated shelters of their choice.
The Department of Health and Human Services has removed a question about sexual orientation from two surveys of elderly Americans about services offered or funded by the government.
Overreach and exceeding authority are two reasons why the Trump policy makers are weakening the Obama-era DOJ and OCR enforcement of civil rights laws and protections.
Activists say they are not surprised. During Trump’s initial days, it was made clear these policies and mechanisms would come under attack and be dismantled.
Jonathan M. Smith is the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. He was the Chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice from 2010 to 2015. It was responsible for law enforcement, correctional, juvenile justice, and mental health and developmental disability agencies.
“These OCRs ensure that federal policy and use of federal funds…tax dollars … by each agency and department complies with the statutes against discrimination,” said Smith. “They have worked to fight against discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation for decades.”
“The Trump Administration claims that the federal government, using the civil rights laws, has overstepped on many issues related to discrimination,” said Smith. “This is nonsense and is just an excuse to remove civil rights protections.”
Smith said the funding and thus the powers of these OCRs was “expanded” during the Obama Administration.
Smith noted U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been reining in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and its effort to address police shootings of citizens and voting rights.
“For Sessions,” said Smith, “race is at the core of his policy decisions. He is not straying too far from his southern roots against civil rights, tightening sentencing guidelines and ignoring police misconduct, especially against Blacks and other minorities. He denies it. But as the old saying goes ‘we know you by your action.”’
One of the most significant areas that activists are concerned about has been related to excessive force by local police, stemming from incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland.
A review was ordered by new Attorney General Sessions of the various agreements that had come about to reform police departments.
They also cite the Administration’s challenge of the Texas voter identification law which targeted minorities and DOE’s withdrawal of federal guidance allowing transgender students to use school bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.
Yet, despite complaints and fears from these civil rights activists and groups, the Trump Administration has said civil rights remains a priority.
“The Trump Administration has an unwavering commitment to the civil rights of all Americans,” White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said in an emailed statement.
But activists retort the Administration’s efforts against civil rights are already in play.
By Leonard E. Colvin