As Americans prepare to observe the (January 20) holiday marking the birth of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., a political firestorm has erupted in Washington over the Bush administration's commitment to promoting equal rights. Democratic lawmakers are sharply criticizing what they see as a troubling pattern of administration decisions that they say will set back progress made in civil rights.
The debate over race and civil rights began last month, when Republican Senate Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi made racially-charged remarks. Mr. Lott who ultimately lost his leadership post because of the controversy, said the nation would have been better off had segregation Presidential candidate Strom Thurmond been elected in 1948.
President Bush condemned the remarks in a rare rebuke of a Republican leader. It was a move welcomed by civil rights groups and Congressional Democrats, who expressed hope the administration would begin to steer a course to help minorities.
Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said "we thought we would see a new day with regard to what the President claimed to be the ideals of the Republican Party and the ideals of this nation."
But weeks later, Mr. Bush renominated a federal judge whose record angers civil rights leaders. Judge Charles Pickering had been rejected for a position on the U.S. Appeals Court months earlier by the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.
Democrats had focused on the Judge's efforts to reduce the sentence of a man convicted of burning a cross outside the home of an interracial couple.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York was surprised by the renomination, coming so soon after the Lott controversy. "When it comes to civil rights, this administration has been talking a good game, but has consistently ignored the need to move civil rights and racial issues forward," he said.
Republicans defend Judge Pickering, saying he was an early supporter of civil rights who once defended a black worker against the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan.
But the controversy did not end there. On Thursday, the administration filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging a University of Michigan program that gives preference to black and Hispanic students who are seeking to enroll. It is a policy, the administration argues, that amounts to discrimination against white students. Mr. Bush said there are better ways to promote diversity. "The racial discrimination we still struggle to overcome requires a special effort to make real the promise of equal opportunity for all," he said.
Democrats, including Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, immediately condemned the administration position. "It is clear that they (the administration) have opted out of the great struggle that this country has been involved in to ensure that race, ethnicity, religion and gender would not be barriers to full participation in our democracy," he said.
Political analysts say the decisions to renominate Judge Pickering and challenge the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies were done to appeal Mr. Bush's conservative base.
Mr. Bush, who received only nine percent of the African-American vote when was elected in 2000, had sought to expand his appeal among minority voters ahead of his likely re-election bid next year. But Allan Lichtman of American University said that effort appears to have been set aside. "Republicans obviously have made the strategic decision to continue to bolster their strength among white conservatives rather than take the more risky path of trying to win over minorities to the GOP [Republican] banner," he said.
Professor Lichtman said Mr. Bush's decisions on the University of Michigan case and Judge Pickering will have an impact on next year's Presidential race by strengthening Republican support among white conservatives, and cementing the loyalties of African American voters to the Democratic Party.