He has pleased his conservative base by opposing affirmative action and nominating federal judges that reflect that ideology, including some from the South with racial records sufficiently questionable to prompt blockage of their confirmation in the Senate.
The president promises to fight for his judicial nominations at the same time he snubs the NAACP convention, saying his relationship with its leaders is “basically non-existent.” Thus, Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover who has not addressed the nation’s premier civil rights organization.
George W. is often compared to his father, but on matters of civil rights, the family’s public record goes back three generations. Prescott Bush, W’s grandfather, was a U.S. senator in the 1950s when the civil rights agenda was simple and basic: end segregation and discrimination in schools, public accommodations and voting rights. At a time when it took a measure of courage to be so, Prescott Bush was proudly known as a pro-civil rights Republican.
His son, George Sr., made his first political race in 1964, for the Senate in Texas. He took the family civil rights policy straight over to the far right, campaigning as a Goldwater Republican, against the Civil Rights Act.
Over the years leading to his presidency, there were zigs and zags in George Sr.’s civil rights positions. At times, he was progressive. As a Texas congressman, for example, watching black Vietnam veterans unable to buy houses in certain Texas neighborhoods, he supported open housing legislation.
But when he needed race as a wedge issue, he allowed Lee Atwater to make the fearsome visage of convicted murderer Willie Horton a centerpiece of the 1988 presidential campaign.
Then, to find a replacement for the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, Bush named Clarence Thomas. The president said that Thomas was the most qualified person in the country for this position and that his selection had nothing to do with race.
Civil rights activist and historian Roger Wilkins rejoined: “President Bush lied twice in one sentence. No one thinks Thomas was the most qualified person in America for the job and, of course, it was all about race.”
It will remain an historical fact that the two most prominent African Americans associated with the first Bush presidency are Willie Horton and Clarence Thomas.
Thus, by any standard, George W. has bettered the father. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are not just the top two in his administration, they are the most prominent black political appointees in history, and none dare call them tokens.
President Bush is free to dance around invitations from civil rights groups, ignoring this one and accepting that, because he knows there is little likelihood that he will do much better than the meager 8 percent of the black vote he got in 2000.
The truth is that not much of a civil rights agenda remains anywhere in the country. Today’s NAACP leadership is reduced to complaining that Bush regularly gives them a thumb in the eye, using Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday to announce his opposition to affirmative action one year, to nominate a federal judge with a questionable racial past the next.
However, there is one issue on the Bush agenda that is beginning to fall into the area of civil rights: the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Designed as the Willie Horton wedge issue of 2004, it is that rare effort in American politics to restrain and constrict rights.
In the black civil rights struggle, those who threw up barriers to freedom are the ones who began to turn the conscience of America. Our national creed does not usually favor those who wish to restrict rights, which is exactly what the Bush amendment is designed to do.
In the 1970s and ’80s, it took some time to understand that the demands of women to end discrimination and guarantee equal pay were actually part of the civil rights agenda. But they were. As Republicans use the gay marriage ban as a sop to the party’s conservative base, the courts and public opinion are moving in the opposite direction. With his constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Bush is putting his own stamp on America’s continuing civil rights struggle. He is making gay rights the next civil right.