Civil Rights

August 16, 1992|By Karen Hosler

There were advances in civil rights and equal opportunity during the Bush years, but not always with the president's blessing.

Of the two pieces of major civil rights legislation enacted during his administration, one had Mr. Bush's firm support. The other made it into law almost in spite of him.

Perhaps the most sweeping civil rights legislation of the last quarter century was passed in 1989 to insure the 43,000 disabled Americans equal access to public accommodations, transportation and job opportunities. Its requirements extend far beyond wheelchair ramps and elevators to also prohibit discrimination against persons with mental illness and diseases such as AIDS.

Mr. Bush didn't propose the measure or lobby for it. But he instructed his aides to make sure an acceptable bill got passed, despite conservative arguments that it would impose heavy regulatory burdens.

"I think he deserves credit," said James C. Dickson, executive director of Disabled and Able to Vote. "He held some of the crazy right-wing reaction in line."

The president was much less enthusiastic about the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which was intended to overturn eight Supreme Court rulings that made it more difficult for victims of discrimination in the workplace to prove their case in court.

The president signed the 1991 version of the bill only after Republicans in the Senate advised him they did not have enough votes to sustain a veto. He vetoed a similar measure in 1990, calling it a "quota bill."

That interpretation came from C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, who were concerned about the bill's affects on small business.

Sen. John C. Danforth, a Missouri Republican and a chief sponsor of the measure, disputed their view. But during the year and a half of controversy over the issue, the term "quota bill" became a familiar Bush slogan. Bush opponents saw it as a subtle appeal to racism.

Health Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, the lone black member of Mr. Bush's cabinet and a top adviser to the president on civil rights, argues the president who promised "new harmony among the races" has led by example. He noted Mr. Bush has a better record than any of his predecessors on the appointment of blacks and women to top administration jobs.

But Mr. Sullivan acknowledged those appointments came mostly the executive agencies while Mr. Bush's personal staff at the White House remained a white, male bastion. "I'm not happy about that, and I've told the president I'm very concerned about that," Dr. Sullivan said.

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