Leading the Races

We routinely screen presidential candidates for demonstrated competence on national security, economic policy, and other supreme responsibilities. But neither major candidate has demonstrated leadership or expertise on racial and ethnic justice (though George W. Bush's record is far worse). To our collective shame, it's been a “missing issue” in the campaign. But it must not be missing among the next president's priorities, because, as Bill Clinton correctly asserted, we face no more difficult or important domestic challenge.

The to-do list has as many headings as the nation's agenda, because racial subtexts pervade everything from juvenile justice to HIV research to the way Americans think about our security and humanitarian interests in countries whose citizens are supposedly different from “us.”

Begin with simple justice. Enforce the laws we have. Notwithstanding the overwhelming social-science evidence of continuing high rates of discrimination in employment and elsewhere, enforcement budgets have been essentially flat since 1981, their purchasing power eroded by inflation, and their focus compromised by exploding dockets for disability discrimination. Mere tens of millions of dollars would make a huge difference, but the investment never comes because leaders care too little about even this most basic agenda item.

“It's the courts, stupid” should be a theme in the campaign, and afterward. A president can nominate middle-of-the-roaders who can win Senate confirmation without taxing his political capital, or he can pick jurists who will, for a life term and within the appropriate judicial role, advance racial justice on a broad front from criminal justice to equal protection to immigrants' rights to interpretation of the open-textured commands of civil-rights statutes. A president committed to progress on race must not pick judges through a process as indifferent to views on race as is the process we use to pick presidents.

The next president should join and lead the growing chorus of analysts and reformers who see that our criminal-justice policies, emphasizing safety through incarceration, impose too high a price on poor and minority communities for too little security payoff. Our dubiously effective but draconian practices simply would not be tolerated if young white adults were incarcerated at even half the rates facing African American and Latino communities. Yes, there's a destructively fitful machismo in domestic policy, too. But the president can seize upon the research evidence and lead the nation out of the ugly rhetorical fog that has blinded both parties for a generation. He can replace “tough on crime” with “smart on crime” (and relieve pressure on state higher-education budgets at the same time).

For prosperity, the top civil-rights priority is narrowing racial disparities in K-12 achievement. Strident criticism of the No Child Left Behind (nclb) legislation must not lead to abandonment of the measure's effort to hold schools and districts accountable for narrowing racial disparities in achievement. The fact that a frightening proportion of heavily minority schools are graded “needs improvement” under NCIB is no reason to dismantle the statute. It's a reason to demand that schools and allied social services ultimately controlled by the states do a better job. This is the leading edge of the new civil-rights agenda.

Let the president never utter the “unfunded mandate” phrase, redolent of states' rights ideology. Equal protection and free speech are unfunded mandates. The president must insist that fairness and racial justice for children are fundamental obligations that states may not avoid because the federal bribe is too little.

The president needs to throw the full weight of his administration behind litigation to defend the voluntary integration efforts of many school boards. This is the K-12 analogue of affirmative action in higher education. The courts are divided, and we need leadership to preserve one of the very few means available to fight the growing resegregation of schools, which threatens to deepen the apartheid-lite system created by housing patterns and conservative Supreme Court opinions that undermined the promise of Brown v. Board of Education.

We also need comprehensive immigration reform, including better enforcement; legalization for many of the undocumented, tax-paying workers long here; and reformed temporary worker programs to regularize the future flow across our borders in a way that reflects industry needs and economic realities. The xenophobic hostility to immigration and its hateful seepage into other realms of policy are poisonous to the continual renewal of America--a vital process, requiring presidential stewardship, which must be driven by our generosity and hope, not our resentments or fears.

Given the silence of the candidates, suggesting a progressive agenda in this domain requires a certain suspension of disbelief--or abiding faith in the possibility of redemption.

Christopher Edley Jr. is a professor at and the dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. He served on the White House staffs of Presidents Clinton and Carter.