“Addressing Racial Ills” at the DOJ

Last week, I wrote about the remarks of Attorney General Holder in which he suggested that the Department of Justice (DOJ) might actually lead the nation in addressing racial inequality, has been extremely upsetting to lots of folks, and in particular, to those on the far right (Civil Rights Memorial image from here).

For example, as Ali Frick at ThinkProgress noted recently (h/t: Paul Younghouse via Brainstorms), Holder’s statements were especially upsetting to Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.   Interviewing Juan Williams on February 19th, this exchange occurred about Holder’s remarks:

KELLY: He said they [the department] has a special responsibility in addressing racial ills. That — that strikes fear down the spines of many conservatives in this country, because they don’t want the Justice Department taking us back to the day when they get heavily involved in things like affirmative action, and things like voter registration rights. […]

WILLIAMS: What you will see I think is more aggressive enforcement in terms of existing civil rights laws. And that was the fear that the existing civil rights laws were not being enforced by the Bush justice department.

KELLY: Well a lot of people thought that the Bush Justice Department sort of got us back to the point where we were — we were being reasonable.

If Megyn Kelly and others like her on the right think that the Bush Justice Department “got us back to” a point that was “reasonable,” then it’s worth taking a look at exactly what the Bush regime meant to civil rights at the Justice Department.

The recent Inspector General report spells out in great detail the unabashed racism in the Bush DOJ Civil Rights Division.   Heavily implicated in this report is Randy Scholzman, the acting director of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.    Scholzman, as regular viewers of the cable news networks may recall, was called to testify before Congress about his hiring practices at the DOJ.   The report clearly reveals that Scholzman lied when he testified and that he illegally used political considerations to replace nearly 1-in-6 lawyers in the division with “good Americans,” and members of “the team,” ie: conservatives and ardent Bush supporters.

More to the point here, the report reveals how Schlozman’s racism shaped the hiring practices at the DOJ.   Scholzman tried to have one African American woman that he described as a “Democrat in hiding” removed because she “wrote in Ebonics,” “was an idiot,” and “was an affirmative action thing.” However, the racism at the Bush DOJ was not limited to Scholzman, nor to his attacks on this one African American woman (Scholzman has since left the DOJ and is private law practice in Kansas).

From 2005 to Jan. 14, 2009, the head of the Civil Rights Division at the DOJ was John Tanner and he used his position to systematically disenfranchise minority voters in order to assist the Republican party.  As one DOJ staffer told the Brad Blogger upon news of Tanner’s resignation in January:

“Since becoming Section Chief in 2005 and even before, Tanner demonstrated that he cared only about serving his Republican overlords’ desire to suppress minority voting to help the Republican Party win elections and not about the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. A great many long-time members of the Voting Section staff are overjoyed at the news of his departure,” the staffer tells us, adding that a celebration is in the works.”

As the Brad Blog reported in 2007, Tanner over-ruled the majority opinion of career staffers in his own department in order to approve a controversial polling place restriction in the state of Georgia that would have required a Photo ID in order to vote. The measure was later found unconstitutional and declared to be a modern day Jim Crow-era poll tax by two federal courts.   In commenting on this decision, Tanner is captured on video saying that it’s a “shame” that the elderly might be disenfranchised by such laws, “minorities don’t become elderly the way white people do. They die first.”

The particular expression of racism that finally forced Tanner to resign was not his efforts to systematically disenfranchise black and Latino voters, rather it was an email that surfaced about how he liked his coffee:   “Mary Frances Berry style – black and bitter.” For those of you born after 1970, Mary Frances Berry is a civil rights leader and now, a professor at UPenn.  It’s worth noting here, if only tangentally, that in the backstage documents that have come to light, both these white men have viciously attacked black women.  Why they didn’t attack black men in similar fashion remains unexplained.   Tanner apologized and resigned the following day.

With Scholzman and Tanner both gone from the DOJ, Holder’s presence is refreshing, which is to vastly understate the case.   And yet, the legacy of that these racist thugs leave behind is greater than merely a trail of personal insults and offensive emails (as heinous as that is).   Tanner and his underlings created real policies, and failed to enforce existing civil rights laws, in ways that had real consequences for democratic society.   During his confirmation hearing, Holder addressed some of the egregious racism that the Inspector General’s report revealed and said:

“What we have seen in that report I think is aberrant, but is also I think one of the major tasks the next attorney general is going to have to do. You have to reverse that …It is my intention to devote a huge amount of time to the Civil Rights Division and restoring [its] great traditions.”

What I think really “strikes fear” in conservatives (like Megyn Kelly) about this is that the old GOP political strategy of disenfranchising black and brown voters for political gain is being seriously challenged.   So, Holder has quite the challenge before him and one that raises some interesting questions about the institutionalization of racism and discrimination.   Surely, as we’ve noted here numerous times, racism is more than merely the sum of attitudes rooted in individual psychology.   And, yet, individuals do matter to the extent that they can and do get into high office and shape the way institutions operate.

The difficult task ahead is dismantling unequal systems and inequitable practices, replacing them with ones that promote justice, until justice rolls down like waters.


  1. GDAWG

    SCUMBAGS! The definition of some those folks, as you noted in your post Jessie, who nested at the DOJ for the last eight years. Nothing else fits the description for them IMHO.

  2. Joe

    And the most chilling thing of all is how the the racist ruling elite under Bush effectively ended what was already a weak enforcement of the civil rights laws. These far-right folks,
    without the sheets, have set the country back decades in “law and order” when it comes to enforcing the civil rights laws…. in the 21st century.

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