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'Civil Rights,' Bush style


The summer after my last year as an undergraduate , I interned in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in DC. I took a lot of ribbing from some friends about having John Ashcroft as my boss, but at the time I viewed the civil rights offices as a haven from the extreme right-wing politics of the rest of the Department.


This is not to say that the sections within civil rights were staffed by hordes of left-wing refugees biding their time until a change of administration—I didn’t talk politics with any of the attorneys I worked with, but there were plenty of signed portraits of George W. Bush up on office walls, and I definitely wasn’t working on any cases that would raise Ashcroft’s ire.

But neither was I working on the kind of systemic campaign against civil liberties that appeared to be the rest of the Department’s raison d’etre, so I thought of the Civil Rights Division as the one area that might at least be close to neutral in the culture wars being waged by the administration.

I have been thoroughly disabused of that notion this week. Attorneys from the Civil Rights Division recently threatened administrators at Southern Illinois University with lawsuits alleging violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That Act; the foundational statute that shapes the modern legal framework of the civil rights movement, was passed to combat horrific racism against African-Americans, and has become a sort of touchstone for progressives, in the sense that it represents so much that can be right with the law. In response to widespread societal discrimination, a grassroots movement drove through passage of a law that stands for racial tolerance and equality, that has served as a foundation for many legal victories in the fight for equal justice for all.

So you would think that the allegations against SIU must be some disgusting throwback to the days of segregation and outright racism. You would be wrong. The wrong identified and targeted by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is a handful of scholarships for minority students.

The scholarship programs would hardly raise normal eyebrows. There are three programs apparently judged to be racist: one called “Bridge to the Doctorate,” that provides funds to assist “underrepresented minority students” to pursue “graduate study in science, technology, engineering, and math.” Another, called “Proactive Recruitment and Multicultural Professionals for Tomorrow,” aim at increasing “the number of minorities receiving advanced degrees in disciplines in which they are underrepresented.” And the third, “Graduate Dean’s,” is for “woman and traditionally underrepresented students who have overcome social, cultural, or economic conditions.” From these three efforts to provide financial assistance for traditionally underrepresented students pursuing graduate degrees, the Department of Justice alleges a “pattern or practice of discrimination against whites, non-preferred minorities and males,” according to the letter sent to the University and discussed in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Is this what the ugly opposition to the civil rights movement has come to? The question of what the appropriate response to the lingering effects of centuries of discrimination should be has been a contentious one, usually discussed within the context of affirmative action as to university admissions. I’ve never understood the willful myopia necessary to think that we have achieved equality already—prerequisite necessary to argue that any differential treatment of students of different races, such as affirmative action, is wrong—and in the context of constitutional analysis, it seems ridiculous that the most racist law targeting blacks for discrimination and a statute passed by a majority of a legislature attempting to assist a traditionally disadvantaged group are evaluated as if their goals were equally illegitimate.

But the Department of Justice’s argument seems, to me, an unbelievably perverse manipulation of this country’s seeming commitment to equality. There are scores of scholarship programs that are targeted for specific populations. Scholarships can be specifically for students in particular disciplines, for students from a specific area or city, for women, for students that graduated from particular high schools or colleges, or for children of parents that work in a given industry. If I wanted to endow a scholarship at my undergraduate school given only to girls named Dara from Fresno, I could do so—it probably wouldn’t have too many takers, but the Department of Justice would not be sending angry letters to USC demanding that they terminate the program or face lawsuits.

Under this logic, only one kind of scholarship can be targeted: scholarships drawn along racial lines. And under the current leadership of the Department of Justice, only one form of those scholarships has come under fire: scholarships trying to help minority students pay for their education. Not only, says Attorney General Gonzales, can schools not acknowledge that students of color face obstacles that the average white applicant do not, but now even when a black student is already admitted to a prestigious graduate program, schools can’t help them pay for it.

It sickens me that this is what the so-called “Civil Rights Division” of the Justice Department is working on. The office charged with helping the federal government ensure that the civil rights of Americans are respected has instead decided to put hardworking minority students in its sights. And most appallingly, with the new Roberts Court staffed with the potential Justice Alito, it will have a Supreme Court more than willing to help the crusade.

Dara Purvis is a weekly contributor to Raw Story, and is also involved in Law Students Against Alito. Visit her on the web @


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