Seven months after taking office, Attorney General Eric Holder is reshaping the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division by pushing it back into some of the most important areas of American political life, including voting rights, housing, employment, bank lending practices and redistricting after the 2010 census.
As part of this shift, the Obama administration is planning a major revival of high-impact civil rights enforcement against policies, in areas ranging from housing to hiring, where statistics show that minorities fare disproportionately poorly. President George W. Bush’s appointees had discouraged such tactics, preferring to focus on individual cases in which there is evidence of intentional discrimination.
To bolster a unit that has been battered by heavy turnover and a scandal over politically tinged hiring under the Bush administration, the Obama White House has also proposed a hiring spree that would swell the ranks of several hundred civil rights lawyers with more than 50 additional lawyers, a significant increase for a relatively small but powerful division of the government.
The division is “getting back to doing what it has traditionally done,” Holder said in an interview. “But it’s really only a start. I think the wounds that were inflicted on this division were deep, and it will take some time for them to fully heal.”
The changes that Holder is pushing through have led some conservatives, still stinging from accusations that the Bush appointees “politicized” the unit, to start throwing the same charge back at Obama’s team.
The agency’s critics cite the downsizing of a voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party, an investigation into whether an Arizona sheriff’s enforcement of immigration laws has discriminated against Hispanics, and the recent blocking of a new rule requiring Georgia voters to prove their citizenship.