Former officials warn Bush to promote civil rights or expect racial conflict


WASHINGTON -- A group of former Cabinet members and high-level federal officials concerned with civil rights -- all from the pre-Reagan era -- warned President Bush yesterday to adopt a more vigorous policy in dealing with "intergroup tensions" or to expect growing racial conflict.

The Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, in a 250-page critique of Mr. Bush's civil rights record, credited the president with some "positive actions that may contribute to a reduction of tensions and to civil rights progress" -- the appointment of minority members and women to his Cabinet, his approval of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and improved enforcement of voting-rights and fair-housing laws.

But "in most areas of civil rights policy and enforcement," the report said, the Bush administration "has continued the policies of the Reagan years that constricted opportunities and curtailed remedies." Singled out for particular criticism by the panel was Mr. Bush's veto of last year's civil rights legislation, which he called a "quota" bill.

In vetoing the bill and using "quota" as a "code word," the commission said, "President Bush not only disappointed those who had looked to him to chart a course of new moral leadership in domestic policy but also fanned the flames of racial intolerance and division."

"On balance," the commission found, "these policies have contributed to an escalation -- not a de-escalation -- of racial tensions."

At a news conference yesterday, panel chairman Arthur S. Flemming -- a former secretary of health, education and welfare and former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights -- called attention to the panel's proposal that Mr. Bush establish a "Cabinet-level task force" to develop a "coordinated action plan for dealing with the causes and consequences of racial conflicts and tensions."

The commission made the same recommendation to Mr. Bush two years ago, but the president did not respond to it then.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, asked to comment on the commission's report, said he hadn't seen it yet, but he defended Mr. Bush's civil rights record as "very strong" and described Mr. Bush as "personally committed to progress in civil rights."

The 13-member bipartisan commission includes Erwin Griswold, former U.S. solicitor general; Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame University and a former chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; Elliot L. Richardson, former attorney general and former secretary for health, education and welfare; Ray Marshall, former secretary of labor; Eleanor Holmes Norton, District of Columbia delegate to Congress and former chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Birch Bayh, former Democratic senator from Indiana; and Rabbi Murray Saltzman, senior rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and a former member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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