“What do you have to lose?” That was President Donald Trump’s pitch to black Americans in the last few months of the 2016 presidential election. In his view, Democrats had done such a bad job running the country and helping minority communities that there was really no risk in voting for Trump.
But in Trump’s first proposed budget as president, he has shown exactly how much minority Americans have to lose under his administration.
Juliet Eilperin, Emma Brown, and Darryl Fears reported for the Washington Post that Trump’s proposed budget would make several major cuts to civil rights work as part of broader cost-saving measures:
- The Department of Labor will fold its Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Historically, the two offices play different roles: The Labor Department’s office, which holds 600 employees, is tasked with systemically auditing companies that the federal government contracts with for discrimination, while the EEOC generally responds to individual complaints of discrimination. The move would hinder the federal government’s ability to investigate contractors’ abuses in a systemic manner.
- The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights Division would see big staffing cuts, among other reductions. The proposal acknowledges this would cause problems: “To address steady increases in the number of complaints received and decreased staffing levels, OCR must make difficult choices, including cutting back on initiating proactive investigations. … OCR’s enforcement staff will be limited in conducting onsite investigations and monitoring, and OCR’s ability to achieve greater coordination and communication regarding core activities will be greatly diminished.”
- The Environmental Protection Agency would shut down its environmental justice program, which offers aid to minority communities exposed to health hazards from pollution.
That’s on top of various other actions the Trump administration has already taken to pull back on the Obama administration’s civil rights advances, including the Justice Department’s decision to stymie investigations into police departments for civil rights abuses and the Education Department’s move to revoke a guidance that asked public schools to shield transgender students from discrimination.
The agencies facing cuts don’t typically get a lot of media attention or other time in the public spotlight. But they do important work, quietly ensuring that federal laws and regulations against discrimination are implemented and upheld.
Consider the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. As the Post reported:
Some companies have questioned the more aggressive approach, noting the office has consistently found since 2004 that 98 percent of federal contractors comply with the law.
But the compliance office also scored some major recent legal victories, including a $1.7 million settlement with Palantir Technologies over allegations that the data-mining company’s hiring practices discriminated against Asians. In a case involving Gordon Food Service, which serves the Agriculture Department, the Pentagon and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the office found the company had “systematically eliminated qualified women from the hiring process.” The firm agreed to pay $1.85 million in wages to 926 women who had applied for jobs and hire 37 of them. Gordon Food was also forced to no longer require women to take a strength test.
There’s no indication these proposed cuts will become law, since they need Congress’s approval first. But the proposal shows Trump and his administration’s priorities — and they point to a vast reduction in civil rights law enforcement.
The administration, for its part, told the Post that it “has an unwavering commitment to the civil rights of all Americans.” It argues that it is merely correcting course after the Obama administration deployed these agencies in an overly aggressive way, and further claims that much of the work done by these agencies should be left to state and local governments.
But the reason the federal government got involved in the first place is because local and state governments weren’t doing enough, if anything, to prevent discrimination.
For instance, the Obama administration only signed off on its guidance for transgender students in public schools after North Carolina passed a law that effectively forbade trans students from using the bathroom in public schools that corresponds with their gender identity. And the federal Civil Rights Act was passed in response to state-enforced Jim Crow laws that imposed racial segregation and allowed discrimination based on race in various settings, from the workplace to housing.
Trump, in the name of saving money and scaling back what he calls federal overreach, is moving away from the Obama administration’s mission to fiercely uphold civil rights laws. He isn’t the first Republican president to do so in modern history; the George W. Bush administration, for one, neglected the Justice Department’s role in civil rights enforcement — by and large ignoring cases of voter suppression and police shootings.
That helps explain why 89 percent of black Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, upholding a recent historical pattern of backing the Democrat over the Republican in presidential elections. Knowing Trump’s long history of racism and his party’s history of racist messaging, they perhaps figured they had a lot to lose. It turns out, based on the budget plan, that they were right.