The nomination of Alberto Gonzalez -- who played a key role in creating the climate of self-justification that led this administration to see itself as above the Geneva Conventions -- was the clearest signal to date of this fact.
But the reality is that the Bush administration has been steadily undermining civil rights in this country all along, from the privacy invasions latent in the Patriot Act to the coddling of the neo-Confederate wing of the Republican Party. It has been steadily creating a climate in which many of the real gains of the 1960s and '70s are being eroded, both politically and culturally.
This was made clear in a recent study, as reported by the Associated Press, that found enforcement of civil rights laws has plummeted since Bush took office:
- Federal enforcement of civil rights laws has dropped sharply since 1999 even though the level of complaints received by the Justice Department has remained relatively constant, according a study released Sunday.
Criminal charges alleging civil rights violations were brought last year against 84 defendants, down from 159 in 1999, according to Justice Department data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University.
In addition, the study found that the number of times the FBI or other federal agencies recommended prosecution in civil rights cases had fallen by more than one-third, from over 3,000 in 1999 to just more than 1,900 last year.
Federal court data also show the government has sought fewer civil sanctions against civil rights violators.
The TRAC report itself contains details about the sources of this disparity:
- One possible explanation for the recent decline in civil rights enforcement actions is that the American people have become more law abiding in this area. While there unfortunately is no way to track such unlawful actions, the Justice Department does monitor the number of civil rights complaints that have been received each year by the government. These complaints have not declined but remained steady at about 12,000 a year for the last five years.
Another possible explanation for the slumping number of referrals and prosecutions in the civil rights area is that terrorism and the events of 9/11/01 forced the Bush Administration to divert its investigators to national security matters. While this may well be a factor, it must be noted that the decline found in civil rights enforcement does not match the trends chalked up by the government for many other enforcement areas.
... The data show that one factor driving the disparate trends is the very different way that the various categories of cases are dealt with by US Attorneys and their assistants. In FY 2003, for example the prosecutors chose to file formal charges in almost all (90%) of the immigration cases presented to them by the investigative agencies. When it came to civil rights, however, they only prosecuted 5%.
As the report's conclusion suggests, this trend represents the first real reversal of the government's commitment to defending the civil rights of the nation's minorities.
This not only sends a signal, it's fully consonant with the political and cultural climate the GOP is creating for the 21st century: intolerant, pinched, with an undercurrent of malice. As in the larger cultural war, the conservative approach to civil rights is to reverse the gains made forty years ago.
On the ground, this plays out in small ways, some of them seemingly innocuous, or perhaps just "isolated incidents." And these run the spectrum.
On the more "respectable" end of things, there's a steady patter of revisionism regarding well-established conventions about civil-rights issues, ranging from Michelle Malkin's defense of the Japanese American internment to the recent ABC News 20/20 report attempting to recast the Matthew Shepard murder as primarily a drug-induced crime and not a hate crime (more about that soon).
This helps create a climate in which, further along the spectrum, the voters of Alabama can vote to retain segregationist language in their state constitution, and hardly an eyebrow is raised.
The dynamic also plays out on the fringes and their interplay with the mainstream. As I've argued before, the spread of white-supremacist ideology among young people is one of the hidden but very real products of this climate.
And so in Newsweek this week you can read about The Hot Sound of Hate, the sudden popularity of neo-Nazi skinhead music among teenagers.
And as the lines begin to blur, and the intolerance and revisionism spreads, and we forget what the struggles of the 1950s and '60s were about, we move closer to the unspeakable itself.