Biden is set to 'undo the Trump years' with civil rights pivot

Mr Joe Biden has pledged to make racial equality a centrepiece of his agenda. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The Civil Rights Division of the US Justice Department is headed for a dramatic makeover under President-elect Joe Biden, who has pledged to make racial equality a centrepiece of his agenda.

Mr Biden will seek to return the division to its original purpose, focusing on anti-discrimination laws that protect millions of people in minority groups that were mostly ignored in the Trump years, said Ms Vanita Gupta, who led the division under former president Barack Obama from 2014 to early 2017.

That means more enforcement of protections in housing, education and the workplace, as well as pushing for better local policing following a tumultuous year of racial unrest, she said.

"This will be an even bigger pivot because of what the Trump administration represents," said Ms Gupta, who now runs the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

"It's been a kind of systematic erosion of civil rights enforcement that is unlike anything we've seen in recent times or recent administrations."

The division was created in 1957 by the Civil Rights Act to enforce laws barring discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, disability, religion and national origin.

Under President Donald Trump, it has sued to protect college admissions for white students, abandoned efforts to protect voting rights and offered support to Mr Trump's political agenda by pushing to ask about citizenship in the census and scrutinising Democratic governors' handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

'Undo Trump'

Civil-rights enforcement will look a lot different under Mr Biden, who is certain to "undo the Trump years" the same way Mr Trump tried to undo the Obama years - "but with a vengeance", said Ms Linda Chavez, who served as the White House director of public liaison for former president Ronald Reagan.

"Anything having to do with race, immigration, voting - I think you're going to see a really dramatic shift in the people appointed" and their priorities, said Ms Chavez, now a conservative commentator and author.

Under Mr Trump, one of the highest-profile actions taken by the Civil Rights Division was a lawsuit accusing Yale University of discriminating against white and Asian applicants by taking race into consideration to admit more black and hispanic students.

All applicants "should expect and know that they will be judged by their character, talents and achievements, and not the colour of their skin," Mr Eric Dreiband, the division's current chief, said when he announced the case in October.

Prof Samuel Bagenstos, who served in the division under Mr Obama, said the Yale suit illustrates the Trump administration's approach to civil rights. Affirmative-action policies at schools are intended to level the playing field after centuries of institutionalised racism, so the Civil Rights Division shouldn't be used to challenge them, said Prof Bagenstos, now a law professor at the University of Michigan.

Racial bias

Mr Obama gave a shout out to the Civil Rights Division at a campaign speech Oct 31 in Flint, Michigan, as he urged voters to consider what's at stake in the election.

"A president by himself can't eliminate all racial bias in our criminal justice system," he said.

"But if we elect district attorneys and state's attorneys and sheriffs focused on equality and justice, and we once again have a Justice Department and a Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department that cares about these issues, we can make things better."

Ms Gupta said Mr Trump's actions over the past four years suggest an embrace of "white supremacy" - the antithesis of the goals of the Civil Rights Division.

She pointed to the Mr Trump's failure to unequivocally denounce white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, his ban on visitors from predominantly Muslim countries, his disparaging remarks about African nations and cruel immigration polices that included separating family members.

Mr Trump has rejected such characterisations. In an interview last month with Fox News, he said "I condemn all white supremacists", adding: "If I say it 100 times it won't be enough because it's fake news."

According to Mr Tom Perez, the head of the division from 2009 to 2013 and now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Mr Biden will need to reaffirm the importance of civil rights enforcement as part of a broader effort to renew confidence in the Justice Department.

'Unmitigated disaster'

"The Civil Rights Division under the Trump administration has been an unmitigated disaster," Mr Perez said.

Governors in New York, Michigan and New Jersey accused the Civil Rights Division of playing politics when it considered opening an investigation into whether four Democratic-led states that were regularly criticised by Mr Trump had caused the virus to spread in nursing homes.

Attorney-General Bill Barr also directed the division to take legal action against state and local officials if their pandemic restrictions went too far in limiting gatherings by religious groups.

The Civil Rights Division under Mr Trump even got caught up in his failed effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

The American Civil Liberties Union and a group of states led by New York Attorney-General Letitia James accused administration officials including Mr John Gore, the head of the division before Mr Dreiband, of providing false testimony about the genesis of the census plan, which US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross claimed was intended to help enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The true motive of the plan was to increase power for Republicans in Congress, and the civil rights angle was a pretext, the states alleged. The Supreme Court called it "contrived".

Police practices

Crucially, the Civil Rights Division under Mr Biden will likely resume so-called pattern and practice investigations into local police departments to root out discriminatory practices, Ms Gupta said.

That's more crucial than ever after a year of high-profile killings of black people by police, massive nationwide protests and civil unrest, she said. Such probes were carried out successfully under both parties but fizzled under Mr Trump, who offered unwavering support to police.

While Mr Biden won't go as far as defunding local law enforcement, as some Democrats demanded, he is likely to champion a shift back to making sure police departments are addressing systemic racism and discrimination, Prof Bagenstos said.

Mr Deval Patrick, who ran the division under former president Bill Clinton before serving as governor of Massachusetts from 2007 to 2015, said previous administrations from both parties had more respect for the Civil Rights Division.

"My predecessor in the George H.W. Bush administration may not have been as vigorous in certain areas as I would have wanted, but he wasn't openly hostile to the assignment," Mr Patrick said.

"He wasn't going about finding ways to read civil rights out of the civil rights law."

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