In recent decades a critical role of the federal government has been to enforce laws that protect marginalized communities from discrimination, with offices in multiple agencies focused on investigating wrongdoing and curbing civil rights abuses.
But with the Trump administration in power, we’re seeing a clear attempt to dramatically walk back the federal role in protecting the civil rights of communities of color.
We have already seen, for example, how the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions is working to undermine many of the gains made by previous administrations around civil rights violations. Sessions has ordered a review of reform agreements between the Justice Department and police departments focused on issues like excessive force and racial discrimination. Under his leadership, the Justice Department abandoned its challenge to a discriminatory voter ID law in Texas. And Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, has come under fire for her approach to civil rights as she joined Sessions in rolling back protections established by the Obama administration on preventing discrimination against trans students in school.
Protecting civil rights no longer seems to be a priority, to say the least.
In addition to shifting the focus of agencies, the Trump administration is also looking to slash budgets and eliminate positions that have historically carried out important civil rights work. The budget Trump’s administration recently proposed would mean a loss of over 121 staff positions in the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Similarly, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights would face major position cuts. Fewer staff means a reduced ability to carry out investigations of discrimination complaints, a quiet but devastating strategy for undermining the pursuit of justice.
Trump’s proposed budget also calls for the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice office to be eliminated entirely, a move that would disproportionately harm Black and Latino communities in low-income areas that are far more likely to face health-impairing pollution. While the Obama administration had begun a new initiative to combat threats like exposure to lead and other toxic substances, Trump’s plan abandons this work just as it is getting off the ground.
All of this could not come at a worse time. As Donald Trump—who rode a wave of hate all the way to the White House doors—begins his presidency, racist attacks are on the rise and civil rights are being threatened from all corners. In the same moment, his administration is cutting back on federal resources to investigate and combat discrimination and hate. It’s a poisonous combination that puts the rights of people of color in real danger.
If Trump and his team have their way, federal agencies won’t have the will or the means to investigate and address civil rights violations. All Americans should be frightened and outraged by this administration’s attempts to take us back to a time in our history where many communities had no protections from an onslaught of discriminatory practices causing physical, social, and economic harm.
White House spokesperson Kelly Love told the Washington Post that the “Trump administration has an unwavering commitment to the civil rights of all Americans.” But actions speak far louder than words. So far the only “unwavering commitment” demonstrated has been to threatening—rather than upholding—civil rights.
Diallo Brooks is the director of outreach and public engagement at People For the American Way.