Why hasn’t this key government post been filled?

October 18, 2015
T-shirts with the image of Martin Luther King and with the words "I can't breathe" are pictured for sale during a Martin Luther King day rally in the Harlem section of New York

T-shirts with the image of Martin Luther King Jr. and “I can’t breathe” for sale during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in Harlem, New York, January 19, 2015.REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Racially charged incidents over the past two years — including multiple slayings of African-Americans by police officers, the killings of nine black worshipers in a Charleston church and legal battles over voting rights — have propelled  civil rights into the national spotlight. Yet the key government engine for protecting those rights, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, has lacked a Senate-confirmed leader that entire time. Indeed, for the past year and a half, President Barack Obama has even failed to send a nomination to the Senate.

To be sure, the Civil Rights Division, under interim leader Vanita Gupta, has been litigating vigorously to roll back discriminatory voting laws and investigating police officers for use of excessive force. It indicted Dylann Roof on hate crime charges in the Charleston church slayings. But something has been lacking.


Hundreds of thousands of marchers gather around the reflecting pool during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Martin Luther King Jr., August 28, 1963. Reuters/Rowland Scherman/U.S. National Archives

That something is a permanent division head. As a former acting head of the Civil Rights Division (who also worked under several acting heads) I know it makes a big difference to have a permanent, division head, with the independent stature that comes from Senate confirmation.

A confirmed division head can plan for the long term — deciding on budgets, which investigations and lawsuits to pursue, how many attorneys to hire for which units and what types of expertise the division may need down the road. This person can also adopt a higher public profile.  The stability that comes with confirmation matters.

Most important, when the president makes the nomination, he demonstrates that the administration cares about civil rights issues and will not be intimidated by any expected Senate opposition. Confirmation hearings create a Senate stage for a public debate about civil rights law and policy, creating a broader national discussion about diversity, opportunity and equality.

Sadly, any nominee for the post will most likely face vigorous Republican opposition. Since the Senate’s rejection 18 months ago of Obama’s last nominee, Debo Adegbile, the president has not even attempted to test that proposition. Though Gupta has served as interim head for nearly a year, Obama has never sent her nomination to the Senate. He should nominate her or an equally qualified candidate immediately.

The nation has been confronting an increased assault on already challenged notions of tolerance and nondiscrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the federal oversight role under the Voting Rights Act has unleashed jurisdictions long subject to federal supervision. From Texas to North Carolina, these formerly “covered” jurisdictions have enacted restrictions that suppress African-American and Latino votes.

In addition, police killings of unarmed African-Americans sparked the “Black Lives Matter” movement and forced many Americans to acknowledge the often troubled relationship between police and minority communities, as well as the persistence of entrenched poverty in racially segregated urban areas. Roof, the white man who slaughtered nine African-Americans at a bible study meeting in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, had expressed his hope of launching a race war.

The Republican presidential contest has contributed to this increasing racial tension by surfacing dark strains of intolerance and exclusion that have in past too often served as a building block of the GOP.

Donald Trump, the current Republican frontrunner, has been leveraging his role as birther-in-chief, in which he sent investigators to examine Obama’s birth certificate in Hawaii. Trump denounced immigrants, particularly Mexicans, during his campaign launch. He regularly talks about sending all illegal Mexican immigrants back to Mexico and has refused to distance himself from the anti-Muslim statements of supporters. Another Republican candidate, Ben Carson, has announced that he did not think a Muslim could serve as president.

These statements feed a minority strain of the Republican Party that has surfaced most recently in the allegations that Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim. They echo those of right-wing supporters of Senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 GOP presidential nominee who opposed the Civil Rights Act. They also reflect Richard M. Nixon’s “Southern strategy” during his 1968 presidential campaign, which used the backlash against the civil rights movement to pull white Southern Democrats into the Republican Party.

It surfaced as well in President Ronald Reagan’s first speech as the Republican presidential nominee, in which he extolled states’ rights near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three young civil rights workers had been slain in 1964. In 1988, it emerged in Vice President George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton attack ad against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and was prominent in Patrick J. Buchanan’s 1992 Republican primary race.

Obama has quietly revitalized enforcement of civil rights laws. Yet, as the first African-American president, he has demonstrated reluctance to assert bold leadership on matters of race. Indeed, some of his mild statements have provoked outraged reaction from conservative opponents. Consider the furious reaction to his statement that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot in Florida.

In these last two years of his presidency, however, Obama has begun to step out on race. His speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the 50th anniversary of the march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act, powerfully recognized the continuing impact of America’s brutal racial caste system, as well as the persistence of racial discrimination.

His eulogy for state Senator Clementa Pinckney, the AME pastor slain with eight others in the Charleston African Methodist Episcopal Church, expressed these same themes. Obama noted that the United States has come far in overcoming slavery and Jim Crow, but recognized that the country still has far to go. The president’s eloquence and challenging tone on matters of race had not been so powerful since 2008.

Now he must assert himself more fully. Activists have taken to the courtroom and the streets to push back against state adoption of restrictive voting laws in the wake of the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act. The Black Lives Matter movement has been holding rallies across the nation in response to police use of excessive force against African-Americans. The country suddenly awoke to the ugly meaning of the Confederate battle flag and began rethinking the misguided veneration of Confederate symbols and leaders.

The next step should be for the president to push for confirmation of a civil rights nominee.

It is time for Obama to challenge Republicans on their commitment to fundamental civil rights guarantees. Facing the GOP presidential campaign’s disturbing turn toward intolerance and the recent events highlighting American’s continuing civil rights challenges, Republicans should be hard-pressed to reject a qualified nominee.

If they do, their actions will speak volumes.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

It is difficult to understand how the republican party that is based on hate, exclusion, and disenfranchisement has any standing.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Well the hard core conservatives can deny being racist. But they forget we live among them. We hear their jokes at the golf course, we see the chain emails in our offices. It’s not that covert.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

“Why hasn’t this key government post been filled?”…….republicans.

Vote every republican out of every office every chance you get!

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Maybe Ted Cruz could read us all some more Dr. Seuss in another wind-bag filibuster speech. Nothing like being so afraid of an up-or-down vote…. that you cry into a children’s book for 18 hours.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive